Water, water, everywhere … - RED - Relevant. Essential. Denver.
At Denver Botanic Gardens, they’re using the water they pull from the air to water an herb garden, which it turn is used in Pizza sold at the Botanic Garden’s Hive Garden Bistro. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Water, water, everywhere …

How the emerging practice of capturing vapor may provide an answer to drought – and a tasty lunch

August 17, 2018

By Cory Phare

As you read this, you’re surrounded on all sides … by water.

Even in the driest of climates, it’s everywhere, found in gaseous form as an integral part of Earth’s hydrosphere. And though not as apparent as its solid and liquid counterparts, vapor may prove a crucial tool in the future of sustainable humanitarian and agricultural infrastructure.

“There’s largely untapped water resource all around us,” said Michael May, a senior sustainable-systems engineering major at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It was intuitive to ask about accessing it – and how to put it to use in a dry environment.”

MSU Denver sustainable-systems engineering senior Michael May talks about the atmospheric water capture appliance at Denver Botanic Gardens and how it utilizes two energy methods. Photo by Alyson McClaran
MSU Denver sustainable-systems engineering senior Michael May talks about the atmospheric water capture appliance at Denver Botanic Gardens and how it utilizes two energy methods. Photo by Alyson McClaran

With nearly half of Colorado experiencing extreme drought, potential solutions to scarcity have never been more timely.

One approach that water futurists such as May are interested in is coupling “horizon materials” – those that aren’t yet feasible to scale – with existing technologies to bridge the gap between imagination and reality.

“Think about silica-gel packets that come with new shoes; they absorb moisture, and you can extract the water, but it requires too much energy to do so at scale,” May said. “Right now, though, there are some promising studies happening in this area, and we could see a potential increase by an order of magnitude – 10 times over on the low end.”

Another budding area of development is community partnerships to harvest that ever-present vapor around us.

“We brought in an expert who talked about technologies like fog nets for air-based extraction,” said Jennifer Riley-Chetwynd, director of marketing at Denver Botanic Gardens and co-director of the One World One Water Center at MSU Denver. “That planted the seed – if we could use renewable resources to harvest water without burning fossil fuels, it would be a game-changer.”

Shown here outside of the Jordan Student Success Building, the device’s center panel is solar electric to run fans, a pump, recharge a battery and operate other moving parts. Either side of the solar electric portion of the panel is solar thermal. Heat is used to facilitate the condensation process of vapor into liquid. Photo by Elizabeth Moreno
Shown here outside of the Jordan Student Success Building, the device’s center panel is solar electric to run fans, a pump, recharge a battery and operate other moving parts. Either side of the solar electric portion of the panel is solar thermal. Heat is used to facilitate the condensation process of vapor into liquid. Photo by Elizabeth Moreno

After subsequent research, Denver Botanic Gardens then acquired several atmospheric-water-capture devices, called SOURCE, from Arizona-based Zero Mass Water.

The apparatus uses solar-electric and solar-thermal panels to power fans that draw in ambient air; vapor is then passed through a condenser and collected via an onboard reservoir.

In addition to three at its York Street headquarters and one at its Chatfield location, Denver Botanic Gardens donated a device to MSU Denver, currently outside the Jordan Student Success Building (another was donated to University of Colorado-Boulder as well).

May was also involved in the equipment deployment as a guest lecturer for a CU Boulder environmental-design class.

Though SOURCE is devised to provide potable water to drink, Denver Botanic Gardens is also the first location to test modified versions for irrigation purposes, with one located next to the Hive bistro for a tasty slice of stewardship.

“The garden we’re using it in is producing squash, tomatoes, herbs and other ingredients you can order on your pizza,” Riley-Chetwynd said.

Hive Garden Bistro pizza chef, Brenda Pearse, prepared a daily special pie that is topped with fresh basil,  peppers, and eggplant that was harvested at Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo by Alyson McClaran
Hive Garden Bistro pizza chef, Brenda Pearse, prepared a daily special pie that is topped with fresh basil, peppers, and eggplant that was harvested at Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo by Alyson McClaran

This is all more than pie-in-the-sky, too – the implications are international.

Take the scenario facing Africa, which is home to 1.2 billion people; that number is expected to more than double by 2050. And the impact of that will be felt everywhere, said Aaron Brown, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering technology.

“We all need water to live, and a huge population explosion is going to happen on the poorest continent,” he said. “These kinds of problems are often best solved from a mulitidisciplinary perspective, and here at MSU Denver we look at research in humanitarian technologies for vulnerable populations.

“We’re training students to address the nexus of energy, water, food and health in a holistic, systems way.”

That’s Brown’s approach to this fall semester’s Sustainable Development Strategy course. Following up on a 2016 trip to Bhopal, India, where students worked in a local integrative-health clinic, the class is a launching pad for a study-abroad effort that will map geographic information systems’ health data compared with water delivery and water tables to see if there’s a correlation between pollution migration and health.

It’s part of a comprehensive community-based conservation conversation. And though using technology such as atmospheric water capture to irrigate beyond small plots of land isn’t currently viable, future research is encouraging.

“If you can pull two to three liters of water from the air in Denver, with 25 percent humidity, that’s really promising for more-humid environments,” Brown said.

For May, whose continued commitment to advancing sustainable solutions included a recent Colorado Science and Engineering Policy Fellowship, coupling innovative material with emerging practices is less of a silver bullet than one of many silver BBs, as he quoted John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s special policy advisor for water.

And thanks to partnerships such as the one between MSU Denver and Denver Botanic Gardens, today’s water stewardship is built to scale for tomorrow’s world.

“The shared knowledge resources we can access directly led to us being asked to join the United Nations’ Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture,” Riley-Chetwynd said.

“The bottom line is that we’re stronger together.”