Winner of the $1.5-million Water Abundance XPRIZE Competition, Venice-based Skysource hopes to democratize global access to drinking water

By Andrew Dubbins

David Hertz and Laura Doss (center) celebrate their XPRIZE win with their Skysource/Skywater Alliance partners
Photo courtesy of XPRIZE

There is a vast reservoir of fresh water in the sky, and Venice architect David Hertz is at the helm of what may be the best machine on the planet for collecting it.

Hertz leads the Skysource/Skywater Alliance, which last month won the $1.5 million Water Abundance XPRIZE Competition seeking a low-cost machine, powered by renewable energy, that could extract fresh water from airborne humidity. It’s a process called atmospheric water generation, and XPRIZE is eyeing it as a solution to global water shortages, including the seven-year drought plaguing California.

Going into the competition, Hertz and wife Laura Doss had mortgaged their home and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund development of the Skywater machine, powered by a novel method of biomass gasification pioneered by All Power Labs in Berkeley.

Speaking before the competition, Hertz said he plans to invest all the prize money back into further developing the technology.

“We’re led by the legacy that we can help address one of the most significant issues facing mankind, which is access to fresh water,” he said.

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Headquartered in Culver City, XPRIZE designs global competitions to incentivize technological innovation that will benefit humanity. The nonprofit’s first contest — launching a reusable manned aircraft into space — helped jumpstart the private spaceflight industry.

This Water Abundance contest, sponsored by the India-based Tata Group and Australia’s Aid Program, sought to address a global emergency. More than 780 million people in 43 countries are facing water scarcity due to lack of fresh water availability, uneven distribution and access, and contamination issues. Yet there are roughly 37.5 million-billion gallons of water in the atmosphere at any given moment, enough to cover the entire surface of the planet with one inch of rain if condensed.

XPRIZE lead Zenia Tata, who dreamt up this contest, grew up in a five-story apartment in India with a water tank on the rooftop. Once a day, workers would fill the rooftop tank with river or well water. “But what if those tanks sponged up their own water from the sky?” Tata wondered. “Imagine if water could be decentralized and on-demand,” she told The Argonaut.

Atmospheric water extraction is not a new concept. Ancient aboriginal civilizations in Peru, for instance, used fog nets to collect drinking water from the clouds rolling off the Pacific, a practice called “fog harvesting” that’s still employed across South America.

Today, there’s a small industry devoted to atmospheric water extraction, but it focuses primarily on large industrial machines or small-scale devices, such as sophisticated osmosis machines for yachts.

The energy required to power these machines is immense. That’s why in designing this XPRIZE competition, Tata and her team decided only renewable energy could be used as a power source. Accepting the challenge, submissions poured in from all over the globe. “That was the most exciting part,” Tata remembers. “Seeing these wildly creative ideas.”

There was a team from Ghana that proposed using kinetic energy from children running on soccer fields to power their device. A team from Namibia was engineering a material modeled after the skin of a dung beetle to enhance water retention. A Russian team was launching high altitude kites to collect water from clouds. There were teams from Iran, New Zealand, and even chilly Northern Europe, where atmospheric water extraction is trickier than at the moist equator.

From an initial pool of 98 teams from 27 countries, five top teams were selected and awarded a $50,000 “milestone prize.”

The Skysource/Skywater Alliance was not among them.

“We thought they were promising, but another team edged them out,” said Tata.

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Hertz, founder of S.E.A. Studio of Environmental Architecture on Market Street, is a pioneer of “restorative architecture,” designing buildings that give back more than they take from the environment. His former Venice residence (aka David Duchovny’s bachelor pad in “Californication”), before he sold it to focus on a Malibu estate built from the upcycled wing of a 747, featured solar-power electricity and water heaters, passive ventilation system, thermostatically controlled skylights and windows, heat-mirror glazing, abundant natural lighting, recycled building materials, and a concrete substance called Syndecrete that captures heat during the day and releases it at night.

In 2015, at the height of California’s drought, Hertz began investigating atmospheric water generation for his buildings. He’d long been fascinated by the mysterious properties of water. As a kid, he suffered severe skin rashes, known as eczema, and took up surfing because the saltwater provided relief.

Intrigued by the idea of pulling water from the air, Hertz sought out Richard Groden, a general contractor in Florida who’d invented a machine called the Skywater, which condenses and filters atmospheric moisture to produce fresh drinking water. Hertz recalled the first time he saw the Skywater in action, a pool of water collecting in its tank after only 10 minutes.

“I’ve seen it thousands of times and it’s still a miracle,” he says.

Groden installed a Skywater in Hertz’s office on Market Street to demonstrate its effectiveness for potential clients. Word spread about the machine, and Hertz began receiving orders from people whose wells were drying up across the state, from Malibu to Montecito to Hollister Ranch. Other customers wanted to dodge water fines, or avoid public shaming for their water usage. One of the first to buy a Skywater was Snapchat’s billionaire founder Evan Spiegel, who purchased the machine for his then- fiancé (now wife) Miranda Kerr as a guilt-free way to fill the pool and water the garden.

As for his own Skywater, Hertz quickly realized the machine was extracting more water than his firm needed, so he began donating the excess to local homeless residents, who use it daily to fill up gallon jugs and water bottles. He also supplies Community Healing Gardens, an Oakwood-based nonprofit that hires kids who’ve aged out of foster care programs. The kids — Hertz calls them “Water Catchers” — fill up from Hertz’s Skywater machine twice a week to water the nonprofits urban garden planter boxes in public places throughout Venice.

“It’s really about the democratization of water, rather than the commodification,” reflects Hertz. “Venice is a social experiment about how we can decentralize water.”

When Hertz read about the Water Abundance X-Prize in 2016, he was already a couple years into experimenting with atmospheric water generation and felt well qualified to compete. He partnered with Groden and All Power Labs to form the Skysource/Skywater Alliance and entered the contest. Confident in their submission, Hertz was surprised to be eliminated after the first round. He also felt betrayed by a team-member who’d left Skysource to join a competitor’s team on the eve of the second round.

“There were significant proprietary breaches with that company, but we didn’t complain to X-Prize,” recalls Hertz. “We took the high road.”

A few months later, Hertz got a call from X-Prize that one of the final five had dropped out, and Skysource could rejoin the contest. “We can’t give you the $50,000, and we can’t extend the deadline,” Hertz recalls being told. Plus, Skysource’s competitors now had a head start. But Hertz didn’t flinch.

“That’s okay,” he told them. “We’re still in it.”

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In addition to Hertz and Groden, the underdog Skysource team includes Doss (a commercial and art photographer who handles product images and community relations), an architect with his firm (who assists with product visualizations and marketing), and an engineering team from All Power Labs.

The Skysource/Skywater Alliance’s machine is called the WeDew (short for “waste energy deployed water”), Hertz describing it as a tropical rainforest in a shipping container. Hertz was the one who came up with the idea to power the WeDew using biomass gasification, which involves vaporizing organic solids into a clean-burning fuel.

For organic materials, the WeDew uses wood chips, which are plentiful in California due to the drought. In a sense, you could say Skysource is using the very wreckage of the drought to combat it. Gasification creates a byproduct called biochar, similar to charcoal, which acts as a fertilizer by simulating a fire event. Hertz plans to distribute the biochar in brown paper bags at farmers markets in Venice, Mar Vista and Malibu in what he calls a “local carbon network.”

In addition to addressing water shortages, Hertz envisions the WeDew as a nimble solution for providing emergency energy and drinking water in response to extreme weather events such as hurricanes or tsunamis.

One of XPRIZE’s requirements was to create a business plan to demonstrate the technology’s commercial viability; and Hertz has formed a company to productize the WeDew. There will be labor involved in the collection of organic material to power the machines, but Hertz sees that as a good thing, creating jobs for people, like the Water Catchers.

“Everything I’ve proposed with XPRIZE has been systems-thinking,” says Hertz. “It’s not just atmospheric water generation. It’s energy, water, food, jobs. … It’s a positive feedback loop.”

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Images courtesy of Skysource

On the morning Hertz spoke with The Argonaut, with about two weeks remaining in the competition, he learned two teams had been eliminated — including his former teammate’s. Skysource’s final competitor at the time, also U.S.-based, relies on wind energy to power its atmospheric water machine. That gives the WeDew a competitive edge, Hertz believes, because the machine isn’t dependent on climate or geography — only organic material, which can be “wood chips, walnut shells, seeds, palm leaves or coconut husks,” Hertz explained.

In the final testing, under the scrutiny of XPRIZE judges, WeDew was required to harvest a minimum of 2,000 liters of drinkable water from the sky over a 24-hour period using 100% renewable energy at a cost of just two cents per liter. Hertz went in expecting the WeDew to generate double that amount of water, at half the cost.

“We’re bringing this thing home for Venice,” he said.

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