By Michael E. Miller
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But who was counting? And besides, a bit of harmless embellishment was in keeping with the improvisational spirit of Air Water, where things had a tendency to get a little messy around the edges. After a year and a half in operation, the company claimed to have lined up distributors in some 35 countries, though no one could provide documentation of any actual sales of the machines.
Zwebner, a voluble, frenetic 52-year-old who moves by wheelchair (his legs were paralyzed by polio when he was an infant), took the lead in extemporizing. For example, he'd decided to save money by handling Air Water's corporate communications himself, which explains why the company's press releases, newsletters, and product brochures are fraught with hyperbole and heavily forested in exclamation points. ("We have the ultimate solution!") He'd also deemed it worthwhile to file a spate of lawsuits, all of them targeting cybersmearers, some of them outlandish. And maybe he'd cut a corner here or there in adhering to the precise terms of certain contracts. These things can happen when an impulsive and excitable entrepreneur is determined to conquer the world. But at the moment there was no time to fret over such niceties.
The next day, January 12, while De Costa was still waiting to hear from international relief groups, Zwebner called from Israel. He had dreamed up a new gimmick to generate a much bigger Air Water buzz, create some waves even. It was coming over the fax. De Costa put his boss on hold and retrieved a sheet of paper from the office fax machine. Here was the CEO's draft for a full-page advertisement he wanted to run in the International Herald Tribune and English-language newspapers in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.
IMPORTANT TSUNAMI AID ANNOUNCEMENT
STOP WASTING THE PUBLIC'S MONEY
All governments of the world, all overseas development agencies, aid and humanitarian organizations, international charities, advisors, and consultants. You can continue to pay $1, $1.50 or even $2 for just one liter of drinking water. (Now add the air freight cost of getting to the disaster area airports, plus the costs of the logistics for delivering the bottles to the victims.) There is another way and you do have options. Make drinkable water from the air on the spot for only pennies per liter. Remember, it's not your money to waste!De Costa walked into Rolando Sablon's office, holding the printout. "I told Michael I wasn't sure if it was a good idea," he said.
Just then Sablon's phone rang. He picked up the receiver. It was Zwebner again. He was calculating the number of tsunami survivors and multiplying them by the number of bottles of water they needed. "That's twelve to fifteen million bottles of water a day!" he exclaimed. "It's the biggest fuckin' scam since water was born!"
Mother Nature has been making water from air for several billion years. In fact the Earth can be viewed as one enormous water machine. The sun is the power source. It heats up water in rivers, lakes, and oceans and converts it to vapor. The vapor forms clouds. When the clouds cool, they release water droplets through a process known as condensation. The result: rain.
The Air Water machines operate on the same principle.
Several of those machines can be found in the company's ocean-view office on Lincoln Road. Most aren't functional because they're fitted with 220-volt power cords rather than the 110-volt cables needed for standard electrical outlets in the United States. The smallest, the so-called Genesis Le Bébé, stands about two and a half feet tall and is said to extract two and a half to three gallons of water from the air each day, possibly more if humidity is extreme.
The largest at the office is the AW120, a white metal box with the dimensions of a kitchen refrigerator but only half as tall. Its advertised output: at least 31 gallons per day. This AW120 is a display model. Plexiglas panels on one side reveal that it is split into an upper chamber where the water is created, and a lower chamber where it drains into a tank. An intake fan draws air into the upper chamber and blows it over refrigeration coils, producing condensation. The resulting water is circulated through a series of filters and exposed to ultraviolet light to kill bacteria. A small computer inside the unit monitors air temperature and humidity. "The biggest thing is the coils," Sablon says, "the angles that they're at, the coating on the coils, the air circulation, the internal fans. That makes a difference." But the best way to explain it, he adds, is to think of a cold can of Coke: "When you put it outside, water drops form on it."
Michael Zwebner, who maintains citizenship and residences in Israel, England, and Miami Beach, recounts that he first heard of tapping air for drinking water from a Chinese businessman during a trip to Vancouver. "I didn't believe him at first," he says of that February 2003 encounter. "I thought it was too hair-raising a story to be true. But I started doing a lot of research and I found that there was a lot on the Internet. If you go to Yahoo or Google and you type in öair to water' or öair water,' you get about ten million pages. It's incredible. There's a lot of stuff on it. The technology has been around for a long time but nobody's really put it to use or taken it to market."