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Air to produce water, anywhere in the world. This is the ambitious but achievable goal of “Aquaseek”: the spin-of which has already achieved most of its objectives. Interview with Vincenzo Maria Gentile, Politecnico di Torino 

On 5th July, the United Nations launched the new ActNow communication campaign. The aim: to further mobilise support for the Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs – of the 2030 Agenda. The campaign’s mission is to deepen and capillarise awareness and concrete action around the Agenda, by acting as a sounding board for global public opinion.   

The mobilisation to support the Agenda with concrete and timely decisions and actions comes ahead of the next UN Summit, scheduled for 18th-19th September in New York. In the article launching the new communication campaign, the UN highlights an update that cannot be ignored: “Halfway to the 2030 deadline, the promise of the SDGs is at risk. For the first time in decades, development progress is being reversed under the combined impact of climate disasters, conflict, economic recession and the ongoing effects of COVID-19“. 

The UN’s is a concrete invitation to all: institutions, political forces, job world and citizens. ActNow is more than a communication campaign: it is an opportunity to be seized, for each of us to make our own decisive contribution, to act boldly towards a sustainable future. Without forgetting that the future is today.  

Even in the world of Italian public research, many interesting projects are being developed that are motivated by this very objective: to be an effective part of the solution to climate change, the rebalancing of ecosystems and fair access to all the primary resources we need. Just think of water.   

Water shortages and scarcity, along with poorly managed sanitation and water systems, are among the greatest challenges of our time. Yet one of the targets of Goal 6 of the 2030 Agenda“Clean Water and Sanitation” – is to increase the efficiency of water use in all sectors by ensuring access to sustainable supplies of drinking water. 

This is what Aquaseek, a spin-off company created in the research laboratories of the Politecnico di Torino, is working on with its patent “Water production from air with solar energy“, better known at the time as Breath technology. The device makes it possible to produce water from air thanks to a thermodynamic cycle that combines adsorption materials and low-temperature heat. The innovation of Breath is that it can produce water in any environment, even the most hostile, such as deserts. It is therefore a technology that is not only avant-garde, but also very much in line with the concepts of inclusiveness, equity and resource sustainability.  

We had the pleasure of getting to know the project better with Vincenzo Maria Gentile, one of the inventors and part of the Breath and Aquaseek team along with Marco Simonetti and Giovanni Vincenzo Fracastoro. The interview is published in connection with the trending topic of the month “Energy and Renewable s”, of which Breath is the most viewed patent in June on the Knowledge Share platform. 

Can you give us a brief overview of what the technology consists of? How it works and how it improves on the ‘status quo’ of technologies currently in use. Also tell us more about the different names. 

Aquaseek is the name we chose for the start-up when we decided to take part in the Start Cup Piemonte, while Breath refers to the technological concept. Finally, “Water production from air with solar energy” essentially refers to the patent. Let’s say that the names tell something about the key moments of our journey so far. In general terms, the idea is to make use of a scarce energy source – a very scarce energy source in terms of quality – comparable, for example, to waste heat (from power stations, for example, or heat flows from the food industry). Then there is the heat that can be produced from solar sources (such as traditional domestic hot water collectors). So the idea was to use this very low value heat to produce water from air.  

How it works. On the one hand we have this energy that can use water, and on the other hand we have adsorption materials. To better understand what adsorption materials are, let’s think of very porous sponges that, when exposed to the air, have a particular affinity for water vapour, the moisture in the air, and become wet on contact. When the right level of saturation is reached, regeneration cycles are triggered, first loading steam and then discharging it. Discharge requires energy and therefore the use of heat, which can come from solar sources to have a sustainable process.   

One of the advantages of the patent is certainly the possibility of using heat at a very low temperature (between 50 and 60 degrees). Another “plus” is certainly that the thermodynamic cycle described allows very low energy consumption. Thus, compared to other existing technologies, Breath is based precisely on the use of very little heat. 

Air is an unexpected source of perfectly pure water. Where did your interest in this mechanism come from, what caught your attention? What was the journey from idea to market potential? 

Basically, it started from a personal experience of living in contexts where access to water was by no means guaranteed. The whole path goes back to a doctoral experience in Morocco, which had to do with solar air conditioning. I remember being very impressed by these very long roads in the desert, where you could sporadically see real ‘gardens of Eden’: which I later discovered were family farms. The family land allows you to have a citrus grove, an orchard or something like that. These lush ‘spots’ are fenced off, inaccessible from the outside, because these are wealthy families who have access to water thanks to a private well. This really touched me, because it was not a question of lack of resources or technological problems, but rather economic ones. 

All this was overlaid with a background of knowledge related to air dehumidification. “Match”: this idea is linked to the fact that, whereas before the air was dehumidified, the product was dry air, in this case the product is precisely the ability to capture this water vapour. The advantage is precisely that there is an annual average of about 13,000 cubic kilometres of water in the air. Let us consider that rivers around the world are assimilated at 2,000/3,000 cubic kilometres. So if we make a comparison – assuming that rivers and lakes are the main source of water consumption on the entire surface of the Earth – we can see that there are considerable amounts of water in the air, much more than we normally use. Not only that, but the other interesting aspect is that it is evenly distributed. Clearly – there are wetter and less wet areas – but it is always there. This gives an advantage, at the level of infrastructure, connections and accessibility, to be able to use a liquid resource, which can be a river, or proximity to the coast for desalination, because at the logistical level the air is already distributed everywhere. 

Not only that, but water is a resource that can be considered renewable, because if you think about it, moisture is nothing more than evaporated water from all the water surfaces in the world. It is really an integral part of the natural water cycle. It is also a resource that is always present and is constantly being recharged – by evaporation from oceans and lakes – and discharged – by the phenomenon of precipitation. These three aspects make it, in our opinion, an interesting solution from a start-up point of view. It is also possible to intervene in all those places where there is a combination of scarce access to traditional resources and high availability of cheap energy resources. Think of desert areas, for example. There you have an enormous amount of solar radiation. Or let’s think of industrial contexts where water consumption is not indifferent. In any case, we are talking about consumption that has a significant impact on sustainability, which is by no means indifferent, including all the treatment – for example – of water that is then processed and discharged at an industrial level. So with Breath, we come back to the concept of not impacting the water table or rivers and lakes: another aspect that is very important to us, especially in terms of sustainability. Of course, there is a lot of research and development between the idea and the final product. 

Can you tell us what size machines can be made? In terms of use and whether there are any precise geographical correlations (e.g. if a machine is intended for a desert area, does it have specific characteristics)? 

From a patent point of view, the technology is also advantageous in this sense because it decouples the operation of the machine from external environmental conditions. It allows you to produce – with an efficiency that is not optimal, because the performance of the design declines slightly in the context of very hot zones, for the time being – there is a minimal aspect of dependence on environmental conditions, but it has the possibility of being able to have a fairly constant producibility on a uniform scale of geographical areas. What changes is the scale. Because there are efficiency points that change, I would need more thermal resources, so a larger scale at the machine surface level than in traditional applications. For example, the air conditioning in the house. To cool the house, the little pipe that collects the condensate on the balcony is enough – and it is still a water-to-air system. The problem is, for example, in a desert environment, where the concentration of humidity is so low that to use a system such as a domestic split, the temperature would have to be drastically reduced, even below freezing point, where water is no longer even liquid. So the problem would be one of technology and energy, as well as practicality. Criticisms that Breath does not have. We had proof of this last October during an experimental campaign in a nature reserve in Texas, where the conditions were truly desert-like. We were still able to produce water. So we have a guarantee of production even in environments where traditional technology fails due to inherent problems. 

In 2021 you founded the spin-off ‘Aquaseek’. What was the journey from research to market? What is the state of the art today? 

The story of Aquaseek started quite informally. We were a group of students, together with Marco Simonetti, who decided to take part in the Start Cup Piemonte. It was a great experience that took us all the way to the national stage, where we came second. We were not yet established, we were more like a group that had given itself a name. So we started looking for funding, because we had the research part: classrooms, laboratories and tools. We did not feel the need to set up a company. Then we met LIFFT and Eureka! who gave us the first seed to start the company. As a researcher, it was quite an impact. Especially on the level of openness and projection of new horizons. As a researcher, you are often focused and concentrated on technological development without too much contact with the outside world. So this also ‘limits’ your thinking a bit. Then, when you turn to the world and try to understand how you can make an impact with what you are studying, you realise that you need to rethink your work from a basic academic approach. 

What are the next steps in the Aquaseek business project? What are you looking for and how much would you need in economic terms, if any? 

Together with Breath, we have patented another technology focused on sponge and absorption. If the goal is to produce drinking water, there must necessarily be biocompatibility in terms of materials used. It is therefore a heat exchanger that has a biopolymer that captures and releases vapor. We are focusing on developing a reliable long-term exchanger while also compacting the machine to achieve increasingly smaller sizes. 

Soon, we will be implementing a new seed and, fingers crossed, there could be an influx of new partners. In our case, it is a true Technology Transfer. There is a very close synergy between the University and the entrepreneurial side. The goal is to reach a technological solution that can be called a product, and the fact that people who were previously students are working on this project is a significant aspect both on a human level and specifically within the industry. 

In general, it is a good period. Industrial partners have also approached us to implement other Proof of Concepts for sizes ranging around a thousand liters per day. There has been interest from various fronts, from a couple of liters to a thousand liters per day. We have found strong interest in the production of hot beverages because it currently aligns better with small-scale production. 

Regarding Italy’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) and renewable energy: What is Italy doing, can do, or should do in this regard with these funds? What is, in your opinion, the socio-political and economic sensitivity towards SDG 6? 

The news changes very quickly, perhaps there is not a straight enough line, and maybe the objective is not clear enough. In my personal opinion, considering the goal of increasing the penetration of renewable sources, a lot needs to be done from the perspective of infrastructure. On the one hand, energy has not only a sustainable connotation but also a geopolitical one; being able to utilize one’s own resources is extremely important. If Vincenzo had the power, he would invest a lot in the grid to increase the level of renewable penetration. 

When I started my studies in energy engineering, there was a boom in photovoltaics. Riding that emotional wave, many people entered the sector, and indeed, there was a very strong impact. Currently, renewable energy peaks are very high, exceeding 50%, whereas when I started, it was around 10%. So, a lot has happened. Now we are reaching a bottleneck again, and I believe it is time to take that necessary extra step towards new sustainable lifestyles. Of course, all this has not been free because society has to deal with the bills and costs. Certainly, without those subsidy policies, it would have been much more difficult. 

Marco Simonetti, in the video interview “Breaking Science – Innovation in the Time of a Coffee Break” with Elisabetta Curzel, said, “The step to be taken now is innovation: bringing it into everyday life requires an investment.” With this statement, he referred to the Proof of Concept calls through which you developed today’s technology. Instead, I ask you: Is Italy ready to take this step? Has it already done so? How would you currently assess the research-business landscape in Italy in terms of innovation? 

Certainly, there is a need for innovation, and investment is needed to achieve it. When I talk about investment, I don’t just mean the economic side but also human capital: those people who “fail” and start over every day. In the end, that’s what innovation is about. It is a process that requires patience, trials, and restarts. Even starting from scratch. 

In terms of research, Italy is very strong because there are truly many researchers. Probably, the leap that needs to be made is the effort to bring the idea into reality, even in the human aspect of Technology Transfer. If you don’t have the economic support to move forward or start over, a significant failure rate is triggered. It’s the same atmosphere that permeates startups. 

Have you received any contacts through the Knowledge Share platform? 

In the initial period when the patent was posted on the platform, there were many feedbacks that served as more of a launchpad, especially in terms of media coverage. But initially, we received many contacts thanks to the platform. 

To discover more about the tech on KS: Water production from air with solar energy | Knowledgeshare (knowledge-share.eu) 

Politecnico di Torino