Creating water from thin air? The university helping to decarbonise our future

<span>One system devised at Northumbria University uses solar energy to extract moisture from the air and turn it into water.</span><span>Photograph: Simon Veit-Wilson</span>
One system devised at Northumbria University uses solar energy to extract moisture from the air and turn it into water.Photograph: Simon Veit-Wilson

An estimated 1.8 billion people around the world live in homes without a water supply, according to research by Unicef and the World Health Organization (WHO). Collecting water is a daily task that falls to women and girls in 70% of those households, and often involves long, dangerous journeys that take them away from education, work and leisure. It’s an issue that’s exacerbated by climate change and war. Experts warn that efforts to tackle water scarcity need to accelerate significantly if the UN’s sixth sustainable development goal – universal access to water – is to be achieved by 2030.

But what if there was a way to harness the energy of the sun to create clean, safe drinking water from thin air? It sounds like a magic trick but that’s precisely what Dr Muhammad Wakil Shahzad, associate professor in Northumbria University’s department of mechanical and construction engineering, has devised with his team. Their portable Solar2Water system uses solar energy to extract moisture from the air and turn it into water – up to 500 litres a day, depending on the size of the unit. It is being seen as a game changer for displaced communities in refugee camps, disaster zones and other remote locations, primarily because it can produce a constant amount of water independently of the humidity in the air.

Northumbria University is highly rated for its strength in engineering research, and is part of a thriving ecosystem of research into energy materials and systems in north-east England. Through collaborations such as the Northern Accelerator programme, commercial potential is recognised and innovations such as Solar2Water are turned into private spinout businesses.

Shahzad’s team received funding from the university to develop a prototype in the lab and was introduced to Northern Accelerator and ICURe, a specialist Innovate UK programme, to develop a proof-of-concept product and explore its commercialisation potential. Solar2Water is already attracting interest, winning energy technology and social impact awards and receiving orders from Mexico, Cameroon and South Africa.

Having previously developed large-scale solar-powered desalination technologies – removing salt from sea water to produce safe drinking water – in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, Shahzad says: “There was always something in my mind to help the remote communities. Northumbria University was really supportive from the start. They understood the concept and could see it was a very good thing we’re trying to do.”

The world faces an unprecedented challenge getting to net zero by 2050. But innovations such as Shahzad’s are helping to demonstrate what is possible when renewables are put to work. It is estimated that the amount of sunlight the Earth receives in one hour is enough to meet the electricity demands of the world for one year, meaning there’s vast potential in solar power alone. “The UK has done an excellent job in decarbonising its energy supply over the last 10 years,” Prof Neil Beattie, professor of energy innovation at Northumbria University, says. “But it’s important we don’t rest on our laurels. There are lots of areas to work on in terms of research, and Northumbria is at the forefront of that.”

Beattie’s own research also revolves around finding new ways to utilise solar power. He is part of a team awarded more than £1m to discover how photovoltaic materials could be integrated into different products in the built environment, such as windows and balconies, but there are other potential applications too. One option could be to embed the technology within the roof of a car to allow it to harness its own solar energy throughout the day. “Our work is not designed to compete with traditional solar panels,” he says. “But if we can achieve a more aesthetic integration and deploy it on a wider range of surfaces it will add much-needed capacity in areas where we’re not generating electricity already. This could be a transformative solution for locally generated electricity that meets increasing demand and provides more energy security.”

As well as developing new opportunities for renewable energy, Beattie has a key role in developing the next generation of talent. He’s the director of Renewable Energy Northeast Universities (ReNU), a partnership set up between Northumbria, Durham and Newcastle universities, after they received £5.2m from the EPSRC. “We recognised that there was a big benefit in drawing all the research excellence that we have in energy materials and systems together to create a pipeline of industry-ready doctoral level graduates,” Beattie says. “Working together we are creating highly skilled leaders who will develop and commercialise the next generation of renewable energy and sustainable distributed energy technologies.”

On top of a traditional PhD programme, ReNU students receive innovation training, take part in a mini-MBA, and attend industry site visits. This includes taking a group to the nearby Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, which tests wind turbine blades over 100 metres long. “This additional training gives the students a big picture for renewable energy,” he says. “It helps them think really broadly about energy beyond an individual technology like a battery cathode, a new electrolyte or a new type of material for a solar panel.”

One of the industry partners working with ReNU is Johnson Matthey, a chemical and sustainable technologies provider. Dr Martin Hayes is the global technology manager for life science technologies at the firm and sits on the advisory board of ReNU. The company sponsors a current ReNU PhD student who is developing a living bionic leaf to produce solar fuels and chemicals from carbon dioxide and water, by harvesting sunlight. “When we saw this project, we thought, wow, this is really interesting,” says Hayes. “If we manage to come up with a process that can upgrade CO2 to fuels using just sunlight, that will be a fantastic result. And if not, we will have supported the training of a very expert PhD graduate who has many of the skills needed in this industry.”

The research conducted by universities such as Northumbria is invaluable to industry partners such as Johnson Matthey, he explains. Not only does it help develop a diverse future talent pool for the sector, but it also de-risks a lot of early-stage projects around step-change technologies. “If they’re successful, we can work with the university to commercialise the technology. Working with partners such as ReNU allows industry to explore cutting edge technologies in a manner that is both attractive and viable for our stakeholders.”

The success of ReNU has led to further funding of £11m to expand the programme and widen access to doctoral level training to those with non-traditional educational backgrounds and other under-represented groups, such as those who are unemployed or disabled, carers, and military veterans. The universities will also work with partners across local government, industry and charities to run taster sessions to help people engage with renewable energy and offer short modules within the training programme to those not enrolled on the course itself.

“If you’re an industrialist and you want to know about carbon accounting, you could come on to our training programme for a week for your own professional development,” Beattie says. “If we want to get to net zero, we need to include everybody. We need all the perspectives and talent we can find to make this happen. This is a huge challenge and responsibility. It’s all hands on deck.”

Find out more about how Northumbria University is driving change and inspiring potential