In this ClimateGenn episode I am speaking with Marco Simonetti, an engineer and Director of an innovative water sourcing company, called Aquaseek, based at Turin Polytechnic, in Northern Italy.
Marco and his colleagues have been developing a natural polymer, derived from Algae, that draws water from moisture in the air.
I ask Marco if it can play a role in the growing desperate search for new sources of water, as we move forward into a drier world?
I’ll be discussing more innovations and challenges on the subject of water shortages as a near-term threat, in forthcoming episodes.
Nick Breeze 00:00
I want to ask you about the technology that you’re developing, Aquaseek. Can you tell us a little bit about how the technology works? What makes it different from other water harvesting technology?
Marco Simonetti CEO 00:14
Oh, yes, sure. Well, Aquaseek technology is based on absorptive material that is a material that is capable of absorbing vapour directly from air and like a sponge, it is like taking it from air and then like when a sponge is full of water, our material is full of this vapour capture, to release it and to have it available for condensation, we have to heat up the materials. So basically, our technology is based on an intermittent process where first we take water from air, leveraging this material, and then we heat it up and make a close loop of a condensation of the water. This type of technology is very effective at very low humidity. While other systems that are on the market are not. Like you can use a chiller, for example, a heat pump machine and the chiller would cool down the air. In some situation where the air is quite humid while you’re cooling down the air you will have condensation of water, but when the air is very dry, like in some dry area of the desert or something like that, when you cooled down, you can reach temperature lower than zero degrees, before you have some condensation. At that point, you are icing the machine and the machine will not work longer. So, the first advantage is that absorption based machine can work with very very low humidity. We demonstrated it in Texas desert and at a temperature that is minus seven condensation temperature that correspond to 10% humidity at 30 degrees centigrade. So very very dry air. The second advantage of the system is that it is very efficient and can be driven by low temperature heat like wasted heat from any power generation system or any engines. Or can be driven at low temperatures, I mean 50 to 60 degrees, and that is also temperature that is easy to achieve with a simple solar thermal system. Or, with the heat pump and the heat pump can be driven by electricity that you can generate by photovoltaics. In this type of absorption technology, we developed two patents and by leveraging these two patents, we are the best of the absorptive technology, to our knowledge.
Nick Breeze 02:45
You’ve talked about scenarios in terms of temperature, desert, one of the things we’re seeing at the moment is vast reductions of groundwater across Europe. And this is obviously it is going on in the rest of the world too. Is there a application for this for replacing sources of water that we might use for irrigation, for example?
Marco Simonetti CEO 03:04
Physically, yes. The atmosphere at the global level contains more than six times the water that is contained in all the rivers we use and we rely on, for freshwater. So, physically speaking, it is possible even to substitute fully the water we normally use for any activities. And that will be like automatic and sustainable balance of atmosphere. But anyhow, we are not looking for that we are looking for having available an alternative source when there are issues. So the full landscape will be a combination of technology like any other topics, but yes, it will be possible. The thing is that condensating water from air comes at a cost. So we need to use energy to condensate. We can use wasted heat, in that case, the energy will be for free, but there will be the need of available wasted heat somewhere. Or we can use renewable energy, so we will have no emission, but we will need an investment cost for it. So the point of this isat the economic level. Technically speaking, it is possible. To which extent depends on economic discussion and development on the industry, I think.
Nick Breeze 04:23
Okay. So from the economic side, if you’re saying energy is one cost, what about the actual material itself? How durable is it? Do you have to change it regularly? Does it last for a long time?
Marco Simonetti CEO 04:34
What do we do know, as we started to use this material like three years ago, and we start using it cycling, what we do know even we are also making artificial ageing process of more cycling than they actually needed. We do know that it should last some years. So the materials we are using is based on a natural polymer and that is the alginate sodium alginate that comes from algae. So it’s fully natural and even food grade material. So it has been used like making a candies and similar foods. So it’s super safe and actually is super available at really low costs. So we foresee that the main components, the exchanger and the absorber materials would last at least three years. And even if we would need to replace each three years, in order to have such an original production capability, this would be a very low cost, because it’s very common chemicals. The new system, the way we built up basing on simple chemicals, the way we built up the materials, the polymer, in order to have the better exchange with water.
Nick Breeze 05:47
If we talk about in terms of the actual product, the water that’s produced, what sort of quality are we looking at what of your test results shown you so far?
Marco Simonetti CEO 05:57
Well, the water is basically like distilled water. So it’s really low mineral quality, it’s even can be seen as pure H2O, pure water. The interesting thing is that, in this process we are using, nothing is captured from the rest of the atmosphere. We made an analysis at a certified laboratory in Torino, SMAT, the local utility of water, which also sent water on the space station, just to say it is very qualified a laboratory. So this SMAT laboratory searched for a wide range of elements that can be in the air, some dangerous materials, etc, more than 1000. They checked 1000 components, and didn’t find anything in the water, except water. Something actually is depending on the cycle. So if you are using some plastic in the machine, you might find some plastic in the water. To be totally sincere what actually was there was something that we put there, but nothing from the atmosphere. That is very interesting. So it’s a super selective process, and the water is pure water, no acid level in it. And that’s a very good starting point. If you want to make a very specific irrigation mixer for your water, you start from zero and you’ll add to whatever you need to add to the water for your irrigation process.
Nick Breeze 07:30
I have a natural bias towards wine, so if I was talking to wine producer in a water stressed area, the first thing they’re going to say is, ‘ How scalable is this thing? What does it look like? How big is it? Is it a great big truck that I need to park on my field?’ How can it scale is it really feasible?
Marco Simonetti CEO 07:47
The core system that is like this exchanger, it is totally scalable. So you can make it like a small radiator like the one you have in your chillers. Or as large as the radiator of truck, or larger. If you put 100 of these truck radiators, you will get the biggest radiator you can imagine for a big plant. Just to give you an idea of the sizes, if you think about 1000 litre per day machine, this could be 3 metres times one times 1.5 metres. So it’s roughly three cubic metres, like i say, a machine to have a 1000 litre per day machine. This machine will need to be supplied with energy. So that’s where maybe some additional spaces are needed. So depending on the source you are considering there will be another needs. So if you’re thinking about photovoltaics because we can drive the system with electricity and you can do it with photovoltaics. For a machine of 1000 litre per day, the energy needed would be in the range of a few 100 metres of photovoltaics like 200 to 300 metres of photovoltaics.
Nick Breeze 09:02
Can you give an overview of some field experiments or case studies that you’ve done so far and what you’ve learned from them? Okay, so you had a proof of concept. Another use that you’ve talked about is humanitarian, and there are water stressed areas. Is this a technology that you think is useful in those scenarios?
Marco Simonetti CEO 09:08
Yes, well, let me say that we are very young company. So we are a startup and we incorporated in July 21. So our current development is of laboratory machines and experimental machine. Anyhow, last summer of 2022, we delivered small machines of a capacity of around one litre per day. So very small prototypes that we employed especially to test the process and then to analyse the water and produce the concept. We delivered this in Pantelleria, to a local winery that collaborate with us and was very interested in having some available alternative water sources because you might know that Pantelleria that is a volcanic island. There is no spring water available and the water from desalination is not allowed to be used for agriculture. Also, the winemaker would not have used it anyhow because he would say it’s a bit acid and it ruins his plants. So he was looking for pure water with no acidity inside and no additional stuff. We made the exercise and our machine generated some tens of litres of water in Pantelleria, remotely controlled. The winemaker used this water, mixed with other rain water he was collecting, to make this experiments on the wine. We still we don’t know yet what is really the results has been on the quality of the wine but we made this water available. I think it is an interesting experience that we would like to scale up. Yeah, I totally think so. You know that water availability in some scenario means difference for a child to survive, for a newborn to survive, one, two or three days after he just came to the world. So, we already had in the past contact with an NGO to work in South Sudan, the place in the world with the highest newborn mortality rate because they don’t have water when when they are delivering. So there is such a high mortality rate. But also we are planning to collaborate with the World Food Programme. They have in Italy, in Brindisi, a huge logistical base and we have an agreement between the Politecnico di Torino where our research come from, and actually comes also from Princeton University, we are a joint effort between two research centres, but we have an agreement with Polytechnical and this facility to develop technology that can be delivered to any UN agency in the world. The plan is to, and we already had some discussions to receive from them suggestions and specifications for a machine that actually can be used. Like how will it be delivered? With a helicopter or trucks? What are the sizing? And how many litres per day? What are the issues with using similar system in a humanitarian, emergency camp, etcetera. So actually, we are looking at this a lot.
Nick Breeze 12:49
Okay, that sounds fascinating and a little bit of a timeline, what are your milestones going forward from today?
Marco Simonetti CEO 12:55
Yes, well, we are actually closing second round of raising funds and the second round is for seeing a programme of industrialisation of products that will end by the 2024. In this 2023 and 24, we will make some demos of large and small machines to qualify the technology and do have feedback from some users. So the demonstration project will be very important to optimise the product that will be eventually industrialised by the end of 2024. So the plan now is to have in 2025, to have the first sale.
Nick Breeze 13:35
It sounds really exciting. I hope we start seeing these kits deployed to plug the water crisis that we were failing into at the moment. Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.