MONTERREY, Mexico (CN) — As the days begin to heat up in northern Mexico, residents of Monterrey, Nuevo León, are hoping they don’t see a repeat of the previous summer. Last year, by July, severe drought and poor resource management had sunk the city into its worst water crisis in three decades.
Entire neighborhoods went months without running water. Party barges and floating restaurants settled onto the dry lakebed of a nearby reservoir that almost dried up completely. Tankers brought water from as far south as Mexico City suburbs like Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl and Ecatepec, areas already suffering from their own water supply issues.
Solutions like digging new wells, cloud seeding and — perhaps the most intractable — changing the habits of the people who use the water have all been proposed, and some have served as short-term Band-Aid fixes. But the water issue is still touch-and-go for the foreseeable future.
In this dire context, researchers in Monterrey are looking to the air for solutions, but they aren’t praying for rain. A team of water management experts from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and private-sector engineers aim to scale up their atmospheric water extraction technology to provide what they claim could be as much as 60% of Monterrey’s water needs, despite the region’s arid climate.
“Our water cycle is broken,” said Mauricio Bonilla, CEO of Innovaqua, a private company that sells atmospheric water generators and whose technology the team plans to scale up to serve the entire city. “The only way to sidestep that corruption is to take the water directly from the humidity in the air before the wind takes it to other places where we can't make use of it.”
In addition to issues affecting quantity, such as how climate change has affected rain cycles, Bonilla also attributes this “corruption” to qualitative factors like contamination of water systems through pollution, neglect and even the prescription medications we take and excrete as waste.
But while much attention is paid to human-caused water waste in supply crises such as Monterrey’s, the biggest drain on the system is the region itself. Nearly-three fourths of the water collected in reservoirs around the city is lost due to evaporation, according to researchers at Monterrey Tech.
Aldo Ramírez, director of the university’s Water Center for Latin America and the Caribbean, uses words less potent than “broken” and “corrupted” to describe humanity’s effects on the water cycle.
“I prefer ‘disrupted,’” he said during a tour of E2 Off-Grid, the collaboration between Monterrey Tech and Innovaqua that provides water for four bathrooms and four potable water fountains in the campus parking garage from which it takes its name.
Two metal boxes roughly the size of industrial air conditioning units installed on the garage’s second floor condense and collect over 360 gallons per day. The project also includes a rainwater collection system to run the building’s plumbing, as well as a treatment plant that cleans and recycles the water used in the toilets, which is then used to water plants on the university campus.
Despite the project’s name, one part of this system is still connected to the grid. The generators’ condensers are currently powered by electricity from the city’s main power grid, but the team plans on installing solar panels to increase efficiency.
They’re working out what Ramírez said were “issues” with the local electricity regulator. Once that hurdle is cleared, the panels will go right up. They already have the budget and the mounting structures ready to go.
Atmospheric water generators are not a new concept. Most Americans have a version of the technology in their air conditioning units. The trick has been to make the technology cost-effective.