In which Elon Musk turns to water supply

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Elon Musk’s name has become synonymous with tech innovation aimed at some of the most significant challenges to human survival.

So far, Musk’s post-PayPal efforts seem to be centred on energy and transport, through companies such as SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity.

What if his focus expanded to encompass water supply? Where might he add his innovative, entrepreneurial touch?

Clue #1: Costs

For a “typical city”, perhaps 20% of all the capital and operating costs of supplying water are spent on purification. The majority of the costs, around 80%, are incurred in capture, storage and distribution.

Clue #2: Technology

Most water supply technology has been around a long time and is pretty basic: think gravity, pumps, pipes, dams and storages. Even most water purification involves very basic physical and chemical processes (coagulation, flocculation and sand filtration) notwithstanding the occasional use of more complex methods such as membrane filtration and reverse osmosis. However, these days there’s a lot of work being put into nanotechnology for water purification.

Clue #3: Market

Water is a basic requirement for survival for every person on earth. Whether it is those individuals that pay, or suppliers or governments on their behalf, the end-consumer is always an individual — usually in their home.

Clue #4: A little inspiration from nature

“Stenocara gracilipes” by © Hans Hillewaert /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons — http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stenocara_gracilipes.jpg#/media/File:Stenocara_gracilipes.jpg

At least two separate groups have taken inspiration from this beetle in developing approaches to harvesting water from air using carbon nanotubes and hydrophobic coatings.

Putting it together

Nanotechnology will provide safe, reliable, lower-cost water purification options. Beetle-inspired nanotechnology is demonstrating that atmospheric water harvesting and local storage is possible.

Combining both, it should be possible to largely decentralise the water supply system.

Costs, energy and material use would all be altered fundamentally if the requirement for centralised capture and distribution of water was disrupted. With daily water use by the world’s urban population being more than 500 billion litres, a current total cost of supply in the order of US$1 per kilolitre and 80% of that related to centralised capture and distribution, that’s a share of at least US$150 billion per year up for grabs.

Is water supply really Musk’s “thing” though?

On the surface, with his apparent inclination toward electricity and electronics, perhaps not.

However, although the technical challenge is different to that of the Tesla and SolarCity projects, there is a conceptual parallel. The development and cost-effective production of a technical solution to water storage would be a critical part of the “Elon-ification” of our water supply, in the same way that cost-effective storage is critical to his energy innovations.

There’s no doubt that water supply is both ripe for innovation and critical to human survival. It could also be relevant to his ambitions for space colonisation.

Time will tell.

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