This story is part of Techonomy’s original series about technology’s potential to help us achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It’s from the most recent issue of Techonomy’s magazine.
It’s an urgent Sustainable Development Goal priority—Clean Water and Sanitation is the sixth goal. Now, nearly one-quarter of the world’s population lacks access to safely-managed drinking water. How can we get water to everyone by 2030?
Many initiatives are tackling that giant question, but one of the most promising is Sponsh (meant to sound like “sponge”), a Dutch company founded in partnership with Eindhoven University of Technology. The founders started with one key observation: In many of the world’s parched coastal regions, some animals and plants have already learned how to capture water naturally found in air. So, Sponsh’s founders wondered, could they create a product that’d do the same thing—and expand human access to water?
The result is a temperature-sensitive fabric about twice the size of a standard American piece of paper. It can be wrapped around trees, for example. Or hung on walls, or between poles. At night, when temperatures tend to drop, the air in coastal areas is filled with humidity. The fabric’s fibers stand up, and begin collecting—and purifying—water from the air. Then, during the day, as temperatures rise, the fibers contract and release the collected water into a container, or onto the ground for irrigation. The company expects that about 1.3 quarts of water can be produced each day from each square meter–about eight sheets of Sponsh.
There are numerous potential uses: In coastal desert areas, better irrigation could help reduce hunger, and inequality. In greenhouses, which frequently suffer from over-humidity, the fabric can be used to reduce humidity levels and enable reuse of the water. And, of course, it can give people more access to drinking water.
Sponsh is still in development, but the company is already getting requests from around the world and meeting with potential distributors in South Africa, Southern Europe, and California. “This is a super-cool way of looking at nature for inspiration, and an innovation that can provide water for so many people,” says Sponsh’s cofounder and CEO Lourens Boot, a Dutch-born engineer living in sunny Portugal, where much of the testing is underway. The goal is for the product to be produced easily near users at a cost low enough to be within reach of the world’s most impoverished people.
Sponsh will be only one of many attempts to address the world’s water crisis. But its innovation has already been recognized by Accenture and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Let’s hope it succeeds.
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