Keith White is the founder and CEO of Ambient Water, an atmospheric water generation technology company providing solutions that produce water from the humidity in the air. Its flagship systems include the Ambient Water 400, which is capable of producing up to 1,500 liters of clean water per day. Angela McClowry from Cleanleap, recently interviewed Keith to discuss atmospheric water generation and its role in a cleanleap.
Angela: Hi Keith, could you give us some background information about yourself, and your company Ambient Water.
Keith: Sure. I founded the company, and have been developing the technology for some 15 years. I'm behind it as the inventor, and the patent holder of the technology, and of course one of the foremost advocates for this type of technology. We've been in existence in one way, shape or form since 1997, and have succeeded in developing several different versions of this product, trying to locate niche markets. Currently we have two different manufacturing facilities, one in South Korea that produces a residential product line, and another in Michigan, United States, that produces a commercial product line to heavy commercial. We are also working out the details of a new facility in Houston, Texas that will produce heavy commercial large-bulk water products for us. In a nutshell that's what we do. We harvest the water that's suspended in a form of water vapor in the atmosphere, and what a lot of people don't realize about the technology and the harvesting of water from the atmosphere is that it's a renewable resource. There's only so much water on the planet that's locked up, in mostly glaciers and lakes. What's interesting with our technology is the atmosphere holds many trillions of cubic meters of water, and it's a self-balancing type of scenario in that the water that's removed from the atmosphere is replenished every day through transpiration of course, as the sun shines on the ocean, it evaporates off water in the form of water vapor, forms into clouds, and then we condense that water vapor, turn it back into water.
Angela: Does it operate in low-humidity environments?
Keith: We can make water in low humidity, but depending on the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity, sometimes it just doesn't make sense. We have set our threshold at a minimum of 40% relative humidity. We'll guarantee water production rates at 40% relative humidity, and anywhere above that. Anywhere below that, yes, we can make water, but we don't publish figures on water production rates below 40% relative humidity.
Angela: Would this technology then be more applicable in areas in Asia as opposed to some of the drier areas in Sub Saharan Africa?
Keith: No, not at all. In fact, anywhere north and south of the equator between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer would be ideal markets for us. That cuts right through Africa. Even if we're north or south of the Tropic of Capricorn or the Tropic of Cancer, we can still produce significant amounts of condensate when we're close to a coastal region. So the Middle East for instance, and Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, areas like that that are situated on coastal regions, even though they're outside of those boundaries we can still produce significant amounts of condensate because we have the effects of the large body of water, high heat and high humidity. Thankfully for us, most of the population of the world lives in coastal regions, within those boundaries where we can produce water.
Angela: Do you have any installations in Africa, the Middle East or Asia, or are you more focused within North America?
Keith: We're domiciled in North America, so most of the installations on a small scale are here, although we just started this year in a large way to spread globally. Before then we were mostly focused on manufacturing capacity, and suitable products to fit into the market, and identify what our niche markets were. Since then we have spread throughout South America, there are several large projects pending in Africa, also in the Middle East. We have deployed our small residential units in all of those areas, and what we find with the smaller residential users, they're great ambassadors for the big, commercial, industrial units. They also serve well as a proof of concept/demonstration unit, because for a lot of people, this is a new technology to them. The idea of making water from the atmosphere is something foreign to them, so when they see a unit run and function and make water, then they're very impressed with the end result. It also serves as a test bed in that the end user can take water samples to the authorities and have the water tested for compliance, so they serve a lot of different purposes for us.
Angela: That's interesting. Is it more applicable for people living off-grid that need access to potable water?
Keith: No, as you know, the world is running out of water, and even places that have infrastructure in the ground, the aquifers water is sourced from are dangerously low in some. There are some areas that are having some issues with water stress. NASA, some of the computer modelling they've done, that particular water stress situation is not going to ease up, it's going to continue, and continue to grow, especially in developed locations.
Angela: Ok, more relevant to supplementing existing water sources. What about areas without water mains infrastructure?
Keith: Yes, it will, help with existing water sources, but also in areas, for instance in Africa, which is a developing nation, or South America. The United States, for instance, they've had 100 years to put infrastructure in the ground to service the people, so they've been able to put water mains, electrical lines and so forth and so on. Because of the way that the economics of the globe and the global community are developing, like Africa, they usually do not have the resources to install infrastructure like telephone lines, hydro lines and water mains etc. Most of the population in those regions have access to infrastructure like cell phones; we see our technology being utilized in the same manner
Angela: Yes, that is the type of information we are focused on sharing here at Cleanleap. Another example in this case is the banking system does not require ATMs everywhere, as people are using their mobile phones to send and receive payments.
Keith: Exactly. We're seeing the same trend develop in water infrastructure as well. The guys don't have the time and the resources, and the money to put underground water mains in, dig up the streets and develop that way in urban areas. They're looking to us to supply these water sites, and make water on-site at point of delivery, rather than to build the infrastructure, and that build can often take 10, 15, 20 years.
Angela: What other opportunities are there for a Cleanleap in this space?
Keith: We’re finding now as we begin to grow the technology, we're leaping over desalination, where a lot of governments have looked to the ocean to provide drinking water, they're now finding that as they ponder over building these new desalination plants that there are some significant downsides to desalinated water. One of the things they're finding is that desalination is basically a large reverse osmosis system. It's a three part fractional type of water development system, in that two parts of the water are kept for human consumption and roughly one part is returned to the ocean which has high salinity content. In the Middle East for instance: they're about 20 years ahead of the rest of the world in desalination. What they're finding now is that that briny water, when it's returned to the ocean, even though it's treated, it is killing the marine life and bleaching the coral reefs.
Angela: What are some of the risks associated with the technology, such as the energy usage? How does this compare to desalination which is energy intensive?
Keith: There is not a lot of accurate information available on the power usage for desalination. There is some information, but it's hard to come by accurate information. A lot of the desalination plants use electricity that is subsidized. The cost of the water per cubic meter is not always accurate. Where we do get those costs per cubic meter, depending on humidity and temperature, we can be competitive, with our systems, with a lot less pollution involved because there is no negative impact to the environment, where desalination has a negative impact to the environment. We certainly can be cost-competitive when it comes to desalination, but again, it really depends on what the price is per kilowatt hour, the humidity and temperature. Not every location in the globe is going to be perfect for our technology, but there are certain areas where of course we would be the preferred technology. We have done some case studies, and definitely the technology pencils out on ROI of the capital cost of the equipment, that's for sure.
Angela: Can your units be teamed up with renewable energy, such as solar? Can you use solar power with battery storage to provide the energy source?
Keith: We can with some of the smaller units that we produce, but when it comes to large units, solar is not practical. Yes we can, in answer to your question, but the amount of surface area of solar panels required to run the units becomes counter-productive, unless there's a large solar field already in the vicinity, and there's an abundance of electricity available, then yes, we can run our units from photovoltaics. Again, the government has to be committed to build the solar arrays to provide power for these units. That will continue to change as the portability of technology continues to progress, and battery technology continues to progress. Then we can expect that our larger units will be running on some kind of hybrid solar, portable photovoltaic system with a good battery source. There are some good technologies on the horizon. As our technology continues to grow, there are some emerging technologies that will allow us to be able to hopefully, eventually run totally off-grid in producing large bulk water.
Angela: That would be good. So, your residential unit currently can run off the grid?
Keith: Yes, we have a small residential unit now that we're working on. We're testing it right now actually, and it actually produces water and air conditions at the same time. It runs 100% unplugged from the grid, so it runs on DC power off of photovoltaics and battery storage. We've done a twist to that application as well, in that we've housed it in a closed-loop greenhouse structure. What we're actually doing is we're providing climate control for the plants, we're capturing the water that the plants transpire as they grow. We gather it with our system, we turn it back into water, and we feed it back to the plants.
Angela: This sounds like what Matt Damon does in the movie The Martian.
Keith: Actually, we have a system like that running right now, very similar.
Angela: Wow, you could be deploying these on Mars soon then.
Keith: Yeah, we'd like that. We also purify the water so you can drink it at the same time. The structures are designed in such a way that we envision those going into a disaster relief area, where these small greenhouse structures, they're 12 feet by 24 feet, can be deployed and set up in about 2 days. The system, again, is unplugged from the grid, so we start making water right away. In disaster relief they need water, so we start making water on site right away. We provide shelter immediately in the form of a greenhouse, the shelters are air conditioned, and they can grow vegetables inside the shelter because it's a greenhouse. Additionally the structures are hurricane proof.
Angela: Wow, that sounds amazing. This is definitely a neat, cleanleap technology.
Keith: What it does is it avoids all the infrastructure needed to transport bottled water. That's one of the biggest problems that humanitarian relief agencies have, is getting water and shelter on site. It's a big logistics nightmare for them. Governments can warehouse our products, like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for instance, and then they can deploy them quickly and provide water, shelter and food within a week and a half to the population in the event of a disaster.
Angela: That sounds really interesting, thanks Keith, I've really enjoyed hearing about this technology. It makes sense, you're taking advantage of a natural system that's already available, and harnessing it to work for us.
Keith: Nice to chat, okay. Bye bye.