Out of Thin Air

Inside a Lincoln Road office building sits a remarkable machine that could change the world

Zwebner soon located James Reidy, a Massachusetts botanist, graphic designer, and inventor. Back in 1991, Reidy had begun exploring the possibilities of using dehumidifiers to produce drinking water. "My family has been drinking bottled water since further back than I can remember," he says. "The municipal water quality was fair to awful. So we just didn't drink it. And then one night at dinnertime my wife said, öGeez, we're out of water. I'm going to run to the store.' And while she was gone I went down into my cellar, where I just happened to have a brand-new dehumidifier. The container was full, so I went over to the sink and dumped out the container, and it looked crystal clear. It just hit me. I said, öSomething's wacky here. Here I'm pouring what looks like beautiful water down the drain, and my wife's out paying $1.50 a gallon for it. So I took a sip of it. You're not supposed to do that, but I did take a sip of it. And it tasted pretty good, and so I started thinking: How do you make this water safe to drink? You know, that's the whole key."

It took Reidy several years of tinkering but eventually he fleshed out his idea in enough detail to secure several patents. In 1996 he nearly sold the rights to a Phoenix high-tech firm, but it defaulted on a down payment. In 2001 he did sell them to Advanced Medical Technologies of Boca Raton. When the company "ran out of money," as Reidy describes it, the patent rights reverted to him. "People think that once they get the rights to this technology they can run out on the street and get all the money they want," he scoffs.

Zwebner says he paid Reidy $400,000 in 2003 for exclusive rights to four patents (and any future ones). Reidy clarifies that he received $100,000 cash and $300,000 worth of stock in Air Water's parent company, also headed by Zwebner. In addition Reidy was to receive a minimum monthly royalty payment of $10,000 starting in November 2003.

Packaged Air Water machines destined for Colombo were immediately photographed on forklifts
courtesy of air water corporation
Packaged Air Water machines destined for Colombo were immediately photographed on forklifts
At Air Water’s world headquarters Rolando Sablon and Bob De Costa (right) are 
ready to reveal the wonder of 
their drinking-water machines
photos by Jonathan Postal
At Air Water’s world headquarters Rolando Sablon and Bob De Costa (right) are ready to reveal the wonder of their drinking-water machines

By the end of 2003 Zwebner had formed Air Water Corporation and contracted with an air-conditioner manufacturer on the outskirts of Jerusalem to produce the machines, which have a projected life span of 24 years (obviously a speculative figure). He also bought a Tel Aviv solar-energy company so Air Water could sell photovoltaic units to power the devices. And he signed a licensing agreement with a factory in China to make small residential models.

Initially Zwebner thought his principal market would be homeowners in the United States, but now he believes it lies in the Third World. "I'm not taking an ego trip here," he muses, "but when you think about it, it's the most incredible situation you could think of. We put a machine in the middle of nowhere, we run it on a generator. Eventually we could bring solar panels and power it from energy from the sun and be completely and utterly independent of any other form of energy. And we would then have energy from the sun, producing water from the air, for life-saving environments. That is incredible, I don't care what you say."

What scientists say is there's nothing at all incredible about making water from air. Refrigerators, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers do it routinely. "You compress air, it gets heated up. Then you cool it close to room temperature and water comes out," says Rakesh Agrawal, a chemical engineer at Purdue University who specializes in cryogenic air separation (using extreme cold to dry air). The question is whether it's cost efficient to use refrigeration technology for drinking water. "When you vaporize a gram of water, you require a lot of heat," Agrawal continues. "The reverse is, if you are trying to condense water, you have to remove a lot of heat. That's a lot of energy, thermodynamic energy. Why not use a small pump with a membrane [filter] and use river water or ocean water or whatever have you, and get potable water? There's no heat or vaporization or condensation involved."

Zwebner and Reidy insist that Air Water machines are in fact energy efficient. A model that produces roughly six gallons of water per day (and is no bigger than dispensers commonly used in offices and home kitchens) requires some 500 watts to run, they say. That's the same amount of energy consumed in 24 hours by five 100-watt light bulbs. At Florida Power & Light's current rates, the cost would be approximately fifteen cents per gallon. By comparison, Zephyrhills charges about a dollar per gallon of spring water, including home delivery.

Bottled-water companies like Zephyrhills, however, have several advantages over Air Water: Production is not dependent on minimum levels of humidity; spring water contains healthful minerals Zwebner's machines do not produce; and bottled-water consumers don't have to worry about the mechanical failures that are sure to occur with Air Water machines.

Zwebner says he's developing a device for his residential units that would infuse the water with minerals. He acknowledges that two Air Water machines he sent to Iraq in 2003 weren't practical because the humidity level was well below the 55-percent minimum necessary for efficient production. And Air Water has yet to field the army of technicians that would be needed to troubleshoot an extensive deployment of its machines.

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