Poop-to-water systems and other radical tech could offer solutions to the worldwide water crisis

  • Fog might be a great renewable freshwater source
  • Powerful personal water filtration system purifies water on the go
  • Super-machine turns human faeces into crisp, fresh water
  • F&T’s low-cost water purification system can even remove emulsified oil

Most people don’t pay attention to how they use – or, should we say, waste – water. Long, refreshing showers on hot summer days are blissful, and being deprived of such pleasures might seem like cruel punishment. However, we should be aware that climate change is a global problem, and not just an issue for developing countries. The harsh wake up call came at the beginning of this year when a three-year drought threatened millions of residents of Cape Town, South Africa, with no water. And the prognosis for the rest of the world isn’t reassuring, either: it’s expected that half of the world’s population will face a water shortage by 2030, the WHO warns.

Water restrictions and conscious water consumption might help, but, unfortunately, these aren’t permanent solutions. And tech like desalination might be a viable solution to water scarcity, but it’s costly, time-consuming, and complex, and it doesn’t provide an answer to the burning question of where to get more clean water. Science and technology are, however, working round the clock to find alternative solutions, some of which are jaw-droppingly ‘out there’.

Fog might be a great renewable freshwater source

For those who live in arid regions such as the Sidi Ifni region of Morocco, an area plagued by drought, water scarcity is a common issue. In the village of Taloust, climate change and growing population pressures have led to unpredictable rainfall and a lack of clean water. Even worse, cycles of severe drought and flash floods have decimated the area in recent years, and since it borders the Sahara desert, desertification poses a major threat as well. But Sidi Ifni has a hidden resource that can help mitigate local water scarcity. Due to its unique microclimate and its proximity to ocean currents, humid air from the coast meets the Anti-Atlas Mountains and turns into a thick, water-rich fog, especially between December and June.

Dar Si Hmad, a non-profit organisation, wanted to harness this precious natural resource. And over the course of 10 years, it put up about 600 square metres of mesh nets that capture water particles from the fog at an altitude of 1,225m on Mount Boutmezguida. Every day, they can condense as much as 6,300 litres of filtered water, and thanks to a system of pipes, deliver this to roughly 400 people in five villages. And though this might seem like a small-scale solution, it’s cost-effective and efficient, and can benefit dry rural areas with a similar climate.

Mesh screens capture air moisture Mount Boutmezguida
Mesh nets that capture water particles from the fog at an altitude of 1,225m on Mount Boutmezguida.

Powerful personal water filtration system purifies water on the go

Another promising invention is the compact, high-performance Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System, a personal purification system with the power to filter more than 378 thousand litres of water during its lifecycle. This means it can last a lifetime. It’s ideal for outdoor activities such as camping or hiking but also for international travel and emergency preparedness. A reusable squeeze pouch that comes with it can collect about half a litre of germ- and bacteria-free water. The flow rate is relatively quick, so the water is clean and ready to drink as it goes through the filter.

The tech behind it relies on a network “of tiny ‘U’ shaped hollow fiber micro-tubes that trap contaminants while allowing decontaminated water to freely pass through at a high flow rate — eliminating the need to store water and reducing the possibility of water contamination after the filtration process”. These tubes are too tiny for harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Vibrio cholerae, and Salmonella typhi to pass through, providing hope for those who don’t have access to clean water. And that’s a serious global issue: according to the WHO, “at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces”, causing diseases with often deadly outcomes, especially in people with an already compromised immune system.

Super-machine turns human faeces into crisp, fresh water

Drinking water that’s contaminated with faeces is far more common globally than you might think, and it’s too disgusting to even consider. But for billions of people, that’s a daily reality. Janicki Bioenergy knows this, and though the water coming from its machine isn’t exactly Perrier, it’s no less tasty.

Though originally developed as a sanitation system to be used in cities, the Janicki Omni Processor is a super-machine that turns faecal material into water and ash. The process behind it is complex and encompasses three phases. First, wet waste streams enter a dryer that causes ‘sludge steam’ to be separated from the solids. Then, the leftover dry, solid mass is burned in a controlled environment and reduced to fly ash. This process creates heat that warms a boiler, producing steam that creates energy through a generator. Meanwhile, the ‘sludge steam’ first goes through a filter – from which solids are fed back into the system – then, it goes through a condenser, and finally to water separation, resulting in 99.9 per cent clean water. It’s not difficult to see how growing urban areas can benefit from implementing this incredible tech.

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F&T’s low-cost water purification system can even remove emulsified oil

Another method that could help mitigate water scarcity, and at the same time reduce the amount of industrial wastewater that reaches the environment, is electrocoagulation, a technique used to remove harmful substances from water that can’t be easily removed by other methods. This includes toxins such as “emulsified oil, total petroleum hydrocarbons, refractory organics, suspended solids, and heavy metals”. This wonder is achieved by passing an electrical current through the water, and the conventional technology used for electrocoagulation consists of one large reaction chamber with multiple electrodes. Unfortunately, this system provides inconsistent performance, makes maintenance expensive, and wastes a lot of energy.

That’s why F&T Water Solutions, an American company specialising in environmentally safe industrial wastewater treatment, developed an electrocoagulation unit, called the Variable Electro Precipitator, that replaces the large chamber with multiple smaller reaction chambers. This increases energy efficiency and improves consistency, as each chamber can be controlled separately. Best of all, this technology can completely remove ground water contamination caused by fracking.

Climate change, overpopulation, and poverty deny billions access to clean water. But a lack of clean water doesn’t affect only developing countries and remote villages, as Cape Town’s experience demonstrates. Though conscious water consumption can help us mitigate the problem, technological innovations such as these are necessary for everyone to have access to clean water.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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