When the power cut out at the Consumer Electronics Show–the world’s biggest annual tech show in Las Vegas–for nearly two hours on Wednesday, most demonstrators were out of luck.
But not Zero Mass Water. The startup, which relies on solar energy, was set up outside under the bright Nevada sun. So while hordes of attendees tried to figure out what to do next, many of them found their way over to the company’s demonstration.
Zero Mass Water’s premise is both incredibly simple and incredibly ambitious: It pulls clean drinking water straight out of thin air. Founded by Cody Friesen, a materials scientist, the startup’s Source system relies on an ultra-absorbent material that collects water at 20,000 times the concentration of the air around it. The setup is powered by solar panels, so it has no carbon footprint.
“We want to fundamentally change the way people receive their drinking water,” says Friesen, who also teaches at Arizona State University. He founded the company in 2014, and the product went to market late last year.
The startup’s standard two-panel system produces about 10 liters of water per day, which amounts to about 20 bottles–usually enough for a family of four. Friesen notes that the water is meant specifically for drinking, since bathing or watering your lawn would blow through the supply in a matter of minutes. The setup costs $4,500, which he says should pay for itself in one to four years when compared to the cost of bottled water.
But the more world-changing use case is in areas without access to clean water. Zero Mass Water works in both humid climates and arid ones. The startup has installed systems in areas of Ecuador, Jordan, Mexico, and the Philippines that lack the infrastructure for drinking water. Following Hurricane Maria, several charities funded installations at a firehouse in Puerto Rico, where local citizens can now come by to refill their containers.
At CES, the demonstration’s six large solar panels and mock kitchen counter continually drew curiosity from passersby. The company also provided interested spectators with samples of Source’s water, which is enhanced with minerals before being pumped into your sink’s plumbing. This reporter tried some, and it was cold and refreshing–certainly better than the tap water at the motel down the road.
As good as the water might be, the cost is likely to be a sticking point before this technology enjoys widespread adoption. Friesen is quick to point out the positive effects that switching from bottled to Source-produced water would have on the environment. He sees the market as enormous, noting that company has performed installations at locations ranging from community centers in impoverished regions across the globe to a Northern California school attended by the children of Silicon Valley elites.
“The point of this is to perfect water for every person in every place,” he says. “Everybody needs water to survive.”