Imagine an eternal source of pure drinking water. A source from which the crystal-clear liquid would flow endlessly. A simple, portable source that would, on demand, produce life-giving water any time, virtually anywhere. A miracle.
It would be an answer to the prayers of millions worldwide who suffer and die for lack of clean drinking water. It would be a humanitarian blessing without precedent in the history of mankind. Some kind of magic.
Imagine that the water is created out of thin air. Literally. Not by sorcery or artifice but by a manmade device, the result of a scientific breakthrough of momentous consequence. Imagine that this astonishing machine actually exists, that it is available right now, that it could be put to immediate use in the service of countless thousands of tsunami victims in South Asia who desperately need fresh water.
Now imagine that it can be found on the twelfth floor of an aging, slightly scruffy South Beach office building. Imagine that you can take the elevator up, walk through the doorway of Air Water Corporation, and see it for yourself. There it is. It all seems to be true. Or is it too good to be true?
Bob De Costa, for one, is a believer. On December 28, two days after Indonesia's devastating earthquake and tsunami, the 53-year-old salesman cut short his holiday vacation in Connecticut and returned to Air Water Corporation's world headquarters: suite 12-F of the Bank of America building at the corner of Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue. He had expected to ring in 2005 with his wife at their home near Westport, but the tsunami disaster changed everything. Suddenly he had an urgent new assignment: Deliver his company's extraordinary water-producing machines to survivors of the South Asia catastrophe.
Instead of pitching the devices to prospective distributors as he normally does, De Costa found himself on the telephone desperately trying to contact international aid agencies and foreign embassies in Washington. He wanted to inform them, first, that Air Water had these amazing machines and, second, that the company was offering twenty of them -- free of charge -- to anyone involved in the tsunami relief effort.
Unbelievably, he wasn't having any luck. It was difficult enough just to connect with someone in a position of authority, but when he did, the response invariably was highly skeptical, even rude. "It was like: öHuh?'" he recalls. "We're trying to give stuff away. A couple of these people were just like: öWhat, are you kidding me?' I mean, they didn't even want to talk." On New Year's Eve he worked the phones all day and into the evening, hoping to hear back from CARE, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision -- any of the numerous agencies and embassies he'd been calling.
As De Costa grappled with the frustration of being ignored or flatly rejected, Air Water founder and CEO Michael Zwebner was approaching the tsunami campaign from a different angle. In his room at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, he put the final touches on a press release and e-mailed it to Rolando Sablon, his 32-year-old general manager, who works with De Costa at the Lincoln Road headquarters. Sablon added some polish, then forwarded it to Market Wire, a Los Angeles company that, for a fee, distributes corporate news releases via the Associated Press global wire service.
Zwebner's announcement hit the wires at 9:34 a.m. on Monday, January 3. It read: "Following a personal telephone conversation with Sri Lankan Prime Minister, his Excellency Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Colombo, and responding to an emergency request, the company will immediately ship twenty Air Water machines to Sri Lanka for deployment in areas stricken by the recent tsunami."
The press release generated no news in the United States, but Zwebner was undeterred. He proceeded apace with daily dispatches to Market Wire.
January 4: Zwebner donates $25,000 to "the Air Water machines fund" to help send the equipment to tsunami survivors.
January 5: Air Water launches a "worldwide appeal for funding" to help the company donate "an unlimited amount of Air Water machines to areas affected by the recent tsunami." The company Website will accept donations through PayPal.
January 6: Sri Lanka's ambassador to Israel visits "the Air Water production facility in Israel," samples the water from the machines, and "approves water taste and quality." Three machines -- each purportedly capable of producing at least 500 liters (132 gallons) of water per day -- would soon be heading to a "food camp" in Sri Lanka operated by IsraAID, a nongovernmental Israeli relief group.
On January 11, Zwebner's publicity blitz got traction. The Jerusalem Post ran a story on the IsraAID mission and mentioned that Air Water had donated three machines "providing seventeen liters per day."
Zwebner nearly came unglued. He quickly shot back a stern e-mail to the Post reporter: Air Water had also donated two smaller machines, for a total of five capable of producing up to 2000 liters daily. And the value of the donation was "between $100,000 and $200,000, making us possibly the single largest aid donor from an Israeli operation." That last might have been a stretch. According to the company's price list, an Air Water 500-liter model costs between $16,000 and $22,000; five of them would be worth no more than $110,000.
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."
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.
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.
Thus the bottle, the water truck, and the well remained Zwebner's chief competitors in the tsunami zone. "In many places affected by the tsunami we have been relying on bottled water, usually in liter bottles, as the quickest way to get water to people in the early phase," says Rick Perera, a spokesman for CARE. "Once the immediate need is met, it becomes a priority to restore local water sources that have been damaged or contaminated. Many communities near the shore depended on shallow wells that were contaminated by salt water." Tanker trucks and aircraft were able to bring larger volumes of fresh water to some areas.
"It's generally cheaper to ship potable water in bulk or obtain it some other way," says David Staelin, professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Mass production requires a mass market, which doesn't exist now [for Air Water machines]. Energy costs and availability will probably dominate the decision to use this proposed condensation technology in preference to alternatives."
Such conventional thinking aggravates Zwebner, who impatiently does the math. "We sell an AW120 -- which is 120 to 200 liters of water daily -- for $3800," he says. "We could probably sell a solar-power unit for it for $8000 and still make a profit. So something around $12,000 to $13,000 for a system completely independent of power forever. Twelve thousand dollars divided by 24 years [life expectancy], that's $500 a year, which is, let's say, $10 a week. For a $1.50 a day I will supply you with about 200 liters [53 gallons] of water. Now, what does it cost you to buy 200 bottles of water today, liter size? Minimum of 50 cents a bottle. That's a hundred bucks. Now you have to take that bottle, put it on a jumbo, and ship it to Sri Lanka. You're talking about two dollars a bottle. And I'm talking about two dollars for 200 bottles. Tell me I'm stupid."
One question: Will Air Water Corporation be here in four years, let alone the twenty-four in Zwebner's calculation? At this point it's anyone's guess. Air Water's parent company, Universal Communication Systems (Zwebner is CEO), has never turned a profit. In fiscal year 2004, Universal posted a loss of $3.5 million.
Zwebner, whose salary at Universal is $240,000 per year, likes a challenge. In the Seventies he worked in Iran as a representative for a U.S. company that sold patrol boats to the Iranian navy; he fled just days before the Shah was overthrown. He had married in 1977 and appeased his wife by agreeing to stay in London, where over the next ten years he operated a travel agency, became the father of four girls, opened a restaurant, invested in properties, and lost a substantial amount of money when England's real-estate market tanked in the late Eighties. (He divorced in 1990.)
In 1991 Zwebner and his brother Charles founded Cardcall International Holdings, which sold prepaid long-distance phone cards. A Connecticut-based company bought the firm in 1998 for $22 million, according to Zwebner.
The phone card success seemed to whet Zwebner's appetite for telecommunications ventures, so much so that he developed a proclivity for launching flashy high-tech businesses before determining whether there was a market to sustain them. After unloading Cardcall, he started Videocall International. The concept was to put video phones in shops that provided discount long-distance phone service on a walk-in basis. But the technology was still too crude to allow smooth operation and the company folded.
In 2001 Zwebner leased space in a building at 1540 Washington Ave. on South Beach and remodeled it to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, which he then outfitted with computer terminals. That was the Hard Disc Café. For a small entrance charge customers could use computers equipped with audio technology, allowing them to make free long-distance phone calls over the Internet. The computers also had video capability, which was useless unless the person on the other end also had it. Most people didn't. Zwebner attributes Hard Disc's failure to 9/11's decimation of tourist travel.
And yet Zwebner is confident that Air Water will lead Universal Communication Systems out of the red. "I'm not only doing it to make money for the company and the shareholders and myself, but I feel that I'm actually doing something. In other words, I actually feel that I'm producing a product and a service that will save lives," he enthuses. "We're shipping machines right now to areas of the world where they will stand in a very rough, jungle-type environment, surrounded by desperate, destitute people who every day will get life-saving water that we produce from the air. I think it's incredible."
Issues of credibility came to the fore on January 20, when Zwebner announced that he'd filed a lawsuit demanding $18 million in damages from a San Diego man named James Coughlin, a.k.a. IrishJim44. It was the latest of five lawsuits Zwebner has filed since June 2004, all of them aimed at silencing people who have posted malicious messages about him on two Websites: Raging Bull and Bad Business Bureau. One of the suits, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, alleges that badbusinessbureau.com, in concert with others, has engaged in a racketeering scheme to extort money from Zwebner.
Badbusinessbureau.com publishes articles called Rip-off Reports that, according to the lawsuit, contain "negative, misleading, false, and defamatory content" about his companies, including Air Water and Universal Communication Systems. Zwebner says the Website operators then demand "exorbitant sums of money" to publish corrections and to keep additional negative reports off the site.
Another of the lawsuits aims to force the Internet portal Lycos, which hosts Raging Bull, to stop the "cyberstalkers" who use that site. (Lycos has yet to respond.) Because one of the stalkers uses the alias "wolfblittzer0," Zwebner is also suing Turner Broadcasting, CNN, and the real Wolf Blitzer in hopes they will pressure Lycos to stifle Zwebner's foes on the Web.
"I'm everything from a child molester, a homosexual, an escort-agency pimp, a murderer, a money launderer, a cocaine dealer," Zwebner fumes. "This whole Internet thing, let me tell you, it's been a major distraction. It's been extremely painful. It's been expensive. I can tell you that over five or six years it's probably cost me one way or another about a half-million dollars in legal fees and court fees and all this aggravation. It's definitely cost me business, that I know for a fact."
What could be motivating "these Internet animals," as Zwebner calls them? "I think they're paid by brokerage houses to go and stir up trouble and try to get a stock to go down so they can make money out of it," he speculates. "Somebody says, öLook, guys, go online, tell everybody what a shit Zwebner is. Make the stock go down three or four cents. Then we'll buy shares. Then stop saying bad things. Naturally the stock will go up again because Zwebner's doing well in his company. When it goes up, we'll sell. Then we'll start the whole process again to make it go down again.' And it's like a fucking yo-yo. It goes up and down and these guys are trading in and out all the time."
On January 31, more than a month after launching Operation Tsunami, Zwebner returned to Air Water's South Beach headquarters. "Now, I'm not claiming for any little bit that I'm ever going to solve the world's water problems," he says, crouched at his black Toshiba laptop. "But what we've discovered in the last six months, and particularly the last two months, is that we may have the ideal solution for certain emergencies. For example, the tsunami."
Zwebner continues: "Now, you're a guy, you're sitting there, God forbid you've lost your wife and kids. You're all on your own. The first thing you need is something to drink. A week goes by, you haven't had a shower, you stink, you're sticky, the temperature's a hundred degrees, you have no home, you're sleeping on the beach. You want to take a shower. How are you going to take a shower? You can't. What are you going to do, take a water bottle and go like this? Then another bottle? And one to shampoo and one more? Hygiene becomes a problem. When hygiene becomes a problem, disease sets in. And then you start getting all these itchy diseases and eventually you get desperate, you start drinking whatever you can, and then you get into typhoid and malaria and diphtheria.
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"Along comes Air Water almost by mistake: öHey guys, relax. You don't have to bring all these bottles. We've got a machine, we make water.'"
Thirteen donated Air Water machines are now on the ground in Sri Lanka, he reports. That may be seven short of the twenty he announced would be shipped "immediately" in his January 3 press release, but again -- who's counting? Zwebner certainly isn't. He's too preoccupied with finding new ways to make the most of the tsunami. Four machines are in Thailand and one in India, all under "review" by government officials, he claims.
Though Air Water's chief executive may be thoroughly immersed in the South Asia disaster, his attention may soon be drawn back to domestic affairs. Last week inventor James Reidy announced that Zwebner had failed to make the $10,000 royalty payments for four consecutive months. A six-week process for terminating his contract with Zwebner ended February 1. "Whatever they say, they do not have any rights whatsoever to my patents," Reidy warns. "All I know for sure is that he cannot use or claim to be using my technology or my patents."
Even if Zwebner were to wire him $40,000 tomorrow, Reidy says he won't reconsider. "It's too late. I don't want to have anything to do with them." Already he's looking for a new group of investors and a new manufacturer to produce his miraculous machines.