US company Zero Mass Water's 'hydropanels', which produce water from sunlight and air, are being used in towns and schools in regional Australia

Zero Mass Water founder Cody Friesen. Image: Supplied.
  • Zero Mass Water makes “hydropanels” which use sunlight and air to make water.
  • The panels have been used in more than 30 countries around the world, including towns and schools in regional Australia.
  • Zero Mass Water founder Cody Friesen told Business Insider Australia the inspiration behind the company’s founding.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Water is one of the world’s most precious resources.

US-based company Zero Mass Water creates Source hydropanels that use sunlight and air to produce drinking water, and regional towns throughout Australia have been tapping into its benefits.

Zero Mass Water founder and CEO Cody Friesen told Business Insider Australia the idea was to create “the world’s first fully disintermediated, infrastructure-free source of water” which doesn’t require electricity or a pipe input.

When coming up with the hydropanels, Friesen said the company started to think about how it can apply the principles of renewable energy – using local resources and sunlight to produce things in a sustainable way – and how it can do for water what solar did for electricity.

“What we end up with inside of SOURCE hydropanels is effectively distilled water,” he said. “We’re distilling that water vapour off of those materials and we make absolutely pure water.”

Inside the panels, the water goes through a mineral block which adds minerals such as calcium and magnesium to give the water a “soft mouthfeel” and a “crisp finish”.

Friesen said it takes roughly 15 minutes to set up the panel and after about a half an hour it will start producing drinkable water.

He added that for the first time, the panels are “making renewable water that doesn’t invoke an extractive process and [is] not taking water from somebody else.”

Friesen, who did his PhD in materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explained that his background is in renewable energy. He said that when people talk about renewables, a lot of them focus on renewable electricity.

“I think everybody, when they say renewable energy, what they really mean is renewable electricity,” he said. “But the reality is that only about 20% of the global energy mix [goes into] electricity. 80% is transportation and embedded energy in the stuff we buy, the food we eat and the water we drink.”

And what exactly is embedded energy? Friesen uses the example of a drinking glass.

“It started out as sand, the sand had to be refined, melted, made into glass beads and then eventually formed into this glass. So all of that supply chain and all that transportation, all the things that were happening, that’s energy at each of the steps.”

Friesen added, “In fact, the embedded energy in the food we eat is far bigger than [our] electricity needs. The embedded energy in water is huge.”

Friesen explained there’s a deep connection between energy and water – for example, the use of desalination plants which remove salt from water to make it drinkable. But in order for people to become more resilient in terms of climate change, companies like Zero Mass Water “have to get much more aggressive about decoupling traditional energy sources from our water.”

Zero Mass Water in Australia

Source Hydropanels are available in 34 countries including Australia. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) even granted Zero Mass Water $420,000 in funding for its first trial of the hyrdopanels.

Zero Mass Water has installed panels regional and rural areas in Australia including Murrurundi in New South Wales and Thulimbah, 15km north of Stanthorpe in Queensland. It also has them at schools such as the Cunnamulla State School in Queensland.

In addition to that, the company has worked with Indigenous communities such as those on Stradbroke Island – also known by the Indigenous name Minjerribah. Zero Mass Water installed an array of 30 panels at the Island’s community centre, which will produce more than 3000 litres of water a month.

Friesen believed the Source panels aren’t just a sustainable way of getting clean water, but also a way to reduce plastic and protect Indigenous land.

“Minjerribah is a World Heritage Site, a beautiful preserved island right there off of Brisbane – and yet tourists show up and they buy bottled water, and then you have a plastics problem,” Friesen said.

“So honouring Indigenous peoples is not just about going in to see their land and their places, but also in returning in some way to a more sustainable way forward. More sustainable doesn’t mean less, necessarily. More sustainable means making decisions and using the technology at our fingertips to… make progress.”

In 2019, Aussie NBA basketball player Patty Mills partnered with Zero Mass Water to donate panels to remote Indigenous communities. Mills’ organisation, The Community Water Project, together with National Basketball Players Association and Australian Indigenous Basketball brought hydropanel arrays to six remote communities in Australia.

Friesen speaks passionately about supporting Indigenous communities through this technology. Upon winning the 2019 $US500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention, he said at the time he would donate it to a Conservation International project that provides clean drinking water to a community in Colombia using Source Hyrdopanels.

“I set out to develop a technology that really would provide social equity and ultimately lift people up,” Friesen said. “And now for us, our ability to do that in a real way is, you know, awesome.”

While Friesen doesn’t see Zero Mass Water as having competitors per se, he said its “incumbents” are bottled water, filtration and rainwater catchment systems.

“Our vision is to perfect water for every person, every place,” Friesen said. “We have the technology that entitles us to that crazy vision. The technology can do that. Now it’s about us executing.”

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