Fontus 'Air to Water' Conversion Process is Here

A woman in Kenya digs drinking water out of the sand.(3BL Media/Justmeans) - When I was a kid traveling with my family in the tropics of Latin America, there were two essential tools my mom and dad insisted we carry: A pot for boiling untreated water and bleach in case there was no way to use the former. Many of the towns and small rural villages we visited didn't offer treated water and my father, who was a clinical nutritionist took pains to educate us on the fact that clean, plentiful water was a luxury. It was our responsibility to ensure that the water we drank from was safe.

For him, this point was driven home by the fact that the majority child mortalities under the age 5 in underdeveloped areas like Guatemala occurred not because of malnutrition—the focus of his research—but from secondary infections from poor water sources and complications like pneumonia or other environmental exposures.

Of course, the one thing that our do-it-yourself system couldn't produce was water itself. Our sightseeing and his work, whether it was in the tropics or arid desert was tempered by the demand for basic amenities.

That's still true today for even the hardiest of travelers. Compact hydration systems like the Camelbak have answered many of the essential demands of backcountry travelers, but they still are confined by resources at hand. If there is no fresh water source along your cycling or hiking route, no country store along the highway, you may be out of luck -- or in trouble -- when that water bladder goes dry.

And that's one of the ingenious answers that the new Fontus water conversion system offers. It is now possible to pull water from thin air.

Developed by Austrian industrial designer Kristof Retezár and electrician Bojan Masirevic, the compact apparatus is designed with hikers and cyclists in mind. The Fontus Airo, a long, cylindrical apparatus that helps condense and capture water as you hike, and the Fontus Ryde, which relies on pedal power to heat, then cool the water employ the principles of condensation to do the work.

"This device collects the moisture contained in the air, condenses it and stores it as safe drinking water," explained Retezár. "Powered by solar cells, it can harvest up to [0.5 liters of] water in an hour´s time under the right climatic conditions." His concept was a runner-up for the James Dyson Foundation award in 2014, and the publicity that the team garnered as a result, along with funding from the Austrian government, helped propel the project to the technical development phase.

In a 2014 interview with the technical design blog, Delabuzz, Retezár noted that the output of the apparatus is only limited by its size and most importantly, by its energy source. 

"A Fontus that produces more water would rather need a more reliable and strong energy source," qualified Retezár.

But haven't we been here before? When vans and motorhomes were first wired for independent interior power sources that would allow one to run a computer back in the 1980s, it took the ingenuity of figuring out how to use an inverter on a larger scale to make that happen. When solar panels were first installed for independent power sources, they ran computers, not houses. Today, these are both forms of electrical power that we take for granted in travel and at home.

The ingenuity of Fontus is the door of opportunity it has opened. As Retezár points out, it takes a concept that has been used for thousands of years and increases its potential. The fog fences of Peru, where local communities harvest drops of water using fences that produce condensation and then convert them to small water pools is one of the many ways that cultures have used condensation to survive.  

Fontus speeds up that concept and makes it a workable prospect in just about any environment from the moist, high mountains of Peru and Guatemala to the arid lowlands of Mexico and drought-impacted California. For both systems however, the amount of time it takes to generate a half-liter of water depends on the humidity in the air. So, generating a glass of water in say, Death Valley may take considerably longer than in the Austrian mountains.

Two boys share a plastic bag of water they have purchased, in Africa. Still, Fontus' real resource is what it offers to a water-stressed world. By tailoring it as a travel accessory for dedicated cyclists and hikers, it may well secure the interest for broader development that could, say, address water inaccessibility from climate change. 

What Fontus can't yet  do, Retezár, says, is block impurities from smog, dust and other forms of air pollution. The company is currently working on a version that would include carbon filters  for use in high-density cities where air pollution is a problem. And given the understandably high interest they have gotten in Fontus, they are also launching an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to allow the company to mass-produce the product.

For the 783 million people who live without a ready supply of clean, potable water however, Fontus may one day offer an answer that not only does away with that portable pot and chlorine backup, but helps to significantly reduce child mortality from poverty. And that will be worth celebrating with a good home-made glass of water.

Images: UK DFID; Ccarstead