The Inventor Trying to Suck Water From the World’s Driest Air
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
With billions of people facing future water shortages, we need all the help we can get.
“You asked for it,” Ap Verheggen says in a low, scratchy voice when I ask about the painting on the wall behind him. He proceeds with a Skype tour of his apartment, which is filled with his surrealist sculptures and a coffee table with metal legs modeled after his wife’s face. Today, the 54-year-old Dutch artist-slash-inventor is blending art, science and technology to help mitigate the world’s growing thirst.
The trajectory of Verheggen’s career shifted in the wake of a 2010 Arctic experience. Working on a personal art project in Uummannaq, Greenland, he set two GPS-equipped sculptures adrift on an iceberg he planned to track for years — only it melted within weeks. Galvanized, Verheggen initiated a more ambitious project, creating what he calls “an icon of human ingenuity” intended to draw attention to climate change. What started as the SunGlacier conceptual art project has evolved into the patent-pending Droppler technology, which uses solar power to pull water from the driest air — and could help some of the 5 billion people the United Nations projects will face water shortages by 2050.
After the SunGlacier — designed to make ice in the desert — received considerable publicity, the Nevada Museum of Art asked Verheggen in 2012 to create a design capable of making water instead. The result? Desert Cascades, Verheggen’s blueprint for a solar-powered cube that converts humidity into waterfalls. “This was beyond the limit of what’s possible,” Vergheggen says, adding that he hoped his improbable ideas would trigger technological advances. It wasn’t until 2015 that he started constructing water-harvesting devices that put his art to the test, and it took years and more than 50 prototypes to get it right.
Verheggen and some friends started making iterations based on existing technology. One design — a 16-foot fountain that uses a store-bought dehumidifier to condense water from the atmosphere — was displayed at the Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague in mid-2016. The following April, the Netherlands Ministry of Defense invited Verheggen and his partners to run tests in Gao, Mali — one of the driest, hottest places on Earth, where temperatures can reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit with 3 percent relative humidity. Rik Harrewijn, a member of the Netherlands’ Concept Development and Experimentation team, says they were searching for technology to manage water scarcity and create greater stability in conflict areas.
Custom made for the Mali tests, the solar-powered Desert Twins tapped the same principle that makes cold soda sweat on a hot day. But the weather was hard on the Twins — the fan broke and the team couldn’t get the unit cold enough to produce condensation. When they did manage to make a few drops of water, the drops evaporated instantly.
Even in desert conditions, a system that sucks in 50 cubic meters of air can yield up to 1,000 grams of water per hour.
Back home in the Netherlands, the ministry simulated Mali’s climate conditions so Verheggen and engineer Peter van Geloven could continue to test dozens of new prototypes. They needed to condense moisture in the air more efficiently, and — strangely, says Verheggen — the crazy cube design was the answer. They built a new device, calling it Droppler technology, which uses solar energy to power a cooler that makes cold water. The water is then circulated through a tube that sucks in air, immediately producing condensation and expanding water volume.
One Friday evening van Geloven left the machine running in his lab. When he returned on Monday, there was water everywhere — much more than his 1.5-liter bottle could hold (the new design ended up producing 4.5 liters per night). Even in desert conditions, van Geloven explains, a system that sucks in 50 cubic meters of air can yield up to 1,000 grams of water per hour. “It’s that simple,” Harrewijn says, noting that even his department’s researchers were surprised. The Ministry of Defense is providing financial support for the creation of a portable device aimed at generating up to 40 liters of water per day. The next challenge will be getting it to market.
The late Kofi Annan (left) and Verheggen in September 2017 at Making Waves, an event that connects innovators with policymakers and investors.
Erik Hoogendoorn, manager of technology and innovation at Engie Refrigeration, says that with a target market that includes low-income people in remote areas, the device has to be cheap. Verheggen says he’s got that covered: Discussions with the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation concluded they will be able to make clean drinking water for a few cents per liter. Of course, if you live somewhere with filthy air, you’d be hesitant to drink the resulting water. But Verheggen says filters and minerals will be added to make it potable. Can you buy the device? Not yet, but Verheggen is negotiating with several multinational companies interested in the technology. Granted, it sounds far-fetched, but if the past is prologue, it could come to pass. “It happens a lot with Ap,” says his longtime friend and collaborator Taco Zwaanswijk, “that he’s doing the impossible.”
Verheggen’s determination surfaced early, when he stopped attending school in his teens. His parents, an engineer and a teacher, respected his decision and allowed him to take night classes to finish high school. “I didn’t fit in any system,” he says. Art became a passion, which he cultivated by studying film and sculpture at the Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts. At 22, he approached Petra Reulings in a bar, certain they would marry someday. They’ve been together ever since.
Verheggen’s endeavors have included making documentaries for nearly two decades, serving three terms as cultural ambassador for UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and giving presentations about his work from Denmark to Costa Rica and Iran. As for his water-harvesting pursuits, he has yet to earn any income from them. “I’ve always thought we live OK,” he says. “We have a good life.” Rather than buy a bigger car, Verheggen says he’d prefer to see his projects “contribute to a better life for everybody.”