4.17 — Water: A Thirst for Innovation

Host Walter Isaacson and guests talk about some of the biggest projects underway to tackle the global water shortage, from ocean desalination to finding water from completely unexpected sources.
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In this episode:

  • Drip drip drip (0:00)
  • Bringing life to the desert (2:20)
  • Drinking the ocean (7:33)
  • Putting AI into the water infrastructure (11:18)
  • A sanitation crisis (17:14)
  • Pulling water out of thin air (24:10)
  • A deep inner thirst (29:05)

Water is not as readily available throughout the world as it might seem to those of us who live in the United States.

Luckily, there are experts around the globe looking for (and finding) solutions to this challenge.

This episode is just a drop in the bucket. Explore other trailblazers in the world of water:

Automated water meters to help lower your water consumption.

● Desalinating the ocean with power from waves.

● Identifying the source of contamination in water using DNA fingerprinting technology.

● From our beer episode, here’s a brewery making beer out of wastewater.

Guest List

  • Zach Fenster is the VP of Business Development at Watergen, the revolutionary Israeli company bringing drinking water from air to people everywhere.
  • Peter Janicki is the founder & CEO, Sedron Technologies & Janicki Industries. Janicki is currently applying his expertise in technology development to the sanitation and waste processing sectors. In 2015, Janicki built the Janicki Omni Processor to help people in developing nations turn waste into wealth and clean drinking water.
  • Takashi Kato is the Co-founder and CEO, Fracta, Inc. Fracta is a cutting edge asset management solution that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI), specifically Machine Learning, to assess the condition and risk of drinking water distribution mains.
  • Seth M. Siegel is a serial entrepreneur, water activist and a New York Times bestselling author. His critically acclaimed award-winning book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World has been published in 19 languages and is on sale in more than 50 countries. His newest work, Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink, sets forth an ambitious agenda for a fundamental rethinking of America’s drinking water system.

“There is a huge, huge opportunity here to develop some technology that can have massive impact around the world.”

— Peter Janicki, entrepreneur on a mission to solve the global water sanitation crisis

Walter Isaacson: When is a tree more than just a tree? That’s what a man named Simcha Blass wondered as he took a walk on a farm near the Mediterranean sea. The year is 1933 and Blass has a young water engineer who recently immigrated to Palestine. He’s looking for a spot to dig a well, when he notices a row of four trees at the edge of the farm. The trees were identical. They’re the same species, the same age, growing in the same soil, standing in the same patch of sunlight. But one of the trees is clearly larger than the other three and this makes him curious. “Why is this one tree so much taller and broader than its neighbor?” Blass thanks to himself.

Walter Isaacson: He walked over to the tree and studies it. Then he kicks his foot into the dirt at the base of the tree. This innocent kick reveals a small irrigation pipe. As Blass examines the pipe he notices a tiny hole leaking droplets of water around its roots. Drip, drip, drip, drip.

Walter Isaacson: Blass looks up at the tree again in wonders, “Can the answer be that simple can a tiny pinhole leak providing a regular diet of water cause this one tree to grow so much bigger and healthier than the others?” Indeed, what Blass discovered that day would one day become the inspiration for an entirely new technology, a new technology that would change the agricultural water landscape of Israel forever. Drip Irrigation.

Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 2: This time it is water.

Speaker 3: Water is essential to every living thing.

Speaker 2: You’ve got used to drinking good water, pure water. Did you ever wonder how it got that way?

Speaker 3: Man requires a continuous supply of water.

Speaker 4: You know, water is essential to life.

Walter Isaacson: As a water engineer, working in an arid climate, Simcha Blass saw the importance of good water management. Throughout history, entire civilizations rose and fell based on how successfully they irrigated their crops, build canals and manage their freshwater supply. In Blass’ time, thousands of Jewish immigrants and refugees were moving to a dry and barren region in Palestine, a region that would one day become the state of Israel. For the new country to succeed, it would need to be able to grow enough crops to feed everyone. That problem became Simcha Blass’ life’s work.

Seth Siegel: Simcha Blass was one of the greatest water personalities of all time.

Walter Isaacson: This is Seth Siegel. He is a writer, water, activist, and author of Let There Be Water.

Seth Siegel: He was born in Poland, which at that time was a seriously antisemitic country. He was Jewish and he showed at an early age, a prodigy-like talent in engineering. He was one of the first Jews ever admitted to the MIT, if you would, of Poland.

Walter Isaacson: After immigrating to Palestine, Blass traveled across the region to study its water problem. The land was dusty and dry with only a few fertile regions and a lot of desert.

Seth Siegel: And he becomes in short order, the water man of Palestine. He goes ahead, drilling for water here, there, and everywhere. He has systems to find that water. He comes up with techniques to transport that water. He goes and starts writing down all of his ideas about what a smart water system would be and would be like and just like Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, his notebooks depict what basically is how the world reorganized itself many, many decades later around water.

Walter Isaacson: Blass spent 20 years as a head of Israel’s national water company overseeing all fresh water infrastructure in the country. He built canals, oversaw the construction of freshwater infrastructure, developed a wastewater management system and instilled an ethos of conservation in Israel. But in all of that time, Blass never got the chance to work on drip irrigation. After Blass retired from public service, he devoted his time to developing his new water technology. In 1965, he got a call from an Israeli agricultural community, a kibbutz in the Negev desert. They wanted to know if he could help them figure out how to grow crops.

Walter Isaacson: The kibbutz had built an irrigation system, much like humans have been doing for thousands of years. They dug wells deep into the ground and flooded their fields with water but because of the hot, dry climate, more than half of the water was lost to evaporation before it could nourish their plants. So Blass built the world’s first drip irrigation system.

Seth Siegel: So what drip irrigation does, is it lays plastic pipes, either underground or right on the surface of the soil and at regular intervals, drips droplets of water on the roots so the plants get the nourishment and the water that they need at the moment they need it.

Walter Isaacson: The results were astounding. Crop yield increased by as much as 40%. The crops were also larger and healthier, just like the original tree Blass came across back in 1933 on that farm near the Mediterranean Sea. Soon other kibbutzim were asking about drip irrigation. In the years that followed, it spread all over the world.

Seth Siegel: Drip irrigation has turned the world of irrigation upside down. So it’s been a transformational technology that has the chance to change the world, particularly at a time when there is need for more food everywhere, and there’s much less water available most everywhere.

Walter Isaacson: Today, 75% of Israel’s farms use drip irrigation. It’s one of the several important technologies helping humans manage and protect the most critical natural resource on earth. It makes sense that the people living in one of the driest regions on earth would be motivated to pioneer new, fresh water technologies. But what if we didn’t need to search for fresh drinking water? What if we could just take it right from the ocean?

Walter Isaacson: You’ve probably heard the expression, “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Water covers more than 70% of the planet, but less than 3% of that water is drinkable freshwater. The rest is saltwater. For thousands of years, the technology to remove salt from ocean water has eluded humans.

Seth Siegel: Throughout history, there’s been this dream of how do we make use of seawater to turn into freshwater? The challenge ultimately became one of how do you do it at a reasonable cost?

Walter Isaacson: This process is called desalination. Even when we’ve been able to remove the salt from ocean water, the process has always been prohibitively inefficient and expensive. In the 20th century, many regions of the world, including Texas and California began experimenting with desalination technology. In the 1950s, Simcha Blass helped develop desalination in Israel, but the technology was still too costly. A few years after he retired, however, an unlikely pioneer delivered a boon to the industry. His name was Sidney Loeb.

Seth Siegel: Sydney Loeb was a guy who didn’t really ever make it anywhere late in life. He decides he wants to get an engineering degree. He’s a grad student in his late 30s and he’s married and his marriage is falling apart and nothing is quite working right in his life.

Walter Isaacson: In the early 1960s, Sydney Loeb was living in California, working on a new form of desalination technology called reverse osmosis.

Seth Siegel: So what is reverse osmosis? If you’ve ever made spaghetti, you understand what reverse osmosis is in a way. So you boil the pasta, you pour it into a colander or a drainer and then if you’re in a hurry, you take a plate and you push down on the plate to get the water out. What comes out on one side is the water, and on the other side is the pasta. Well, keep that image in mind now with the filter, that is the tiniest holes imaginable and imagine using force to push water through this filter. On one side of the filter is salt and minerals and perhaps some sand, and on the other side of that filter is the purest H2O imaginable because everything has been taken out of it. Bacteria, viruses, minerals, everything.

Walter Isaacson: The key to reverse osmosis, Loeb discovered, was the filter. If you build a better filter, you can take the salt out of sea water efficiently and cheaply. So that’s what Loeb did. He invented a new kind of membrane filter with holes so tiny that a thousand of them could fit inside the width of a human hair. Israel became the first country to adopt reverse osmosis on a wide scale. Today almost 80% of the country’s fresh water comes from desalination.

Walter Isaacson: Reverse osmosis is now the bedrock of a global desalination industry that provides water to more than 300 million people. But making enough fresh water is not the only problem we need to solve. We also need to know how to move it without wasting it.

Walter Isaacson: The modern city of San Francisco has something in common with ancient Rome, both cities built state-of-the-art public water systems, and both saw those systems start to deteriorate over time. The Romans invented modern plumbing, and although they’re most famous for their aqueducts and fountains, they were also the first to develop an underground system to move water through the city and into buildings. But over time, the cost of maintaining that complex infrastructure became a burden on Rome and the system began to fail. The Empire’s days were numbered. Today, San Francisco is facing a similar problem. Their a hundred year old water infrastructure system is degrading faster than it can be repaired. So the city’s public utility began a massive rehabilitation effort and a few years ago, an unlikely person arrived in San Francisco to help them. His idea was to introduce San Francisco’s water system to artificial intelligence.

Takashi Kato: My name is Takashi Kato. I am a co-founder and CEO of the company called Fracta.

Walter Isaacson: Takashi Kato was born in Japan and got his start as a robotics engineer, helping oil and gas companies predict pipeline failures. A few years ago, he moved to San Francisco and turned his attention from oil pipelines to water mains. He quickly realized the incredible size of the challenge facing his adopted country.

Takashi Kato: The problem is in [inaudible 00:13:14], more than one million miles of the water main pipe in the US, most of which are forecasted to reach the end of their life cycle by 2050. The 53,000 water utilities in the United States currently face a massive invisible problem, a pipeageddon, based on pipe infrastructure that will reach the placement age in the same time plane, compounded by insufficient data on the aging pipe and lack of budget to solve the growing problem.

Walter Isaacson: Pipeageddon is already underway. Every year, there are more than 240,000 breaks in America’s water mains, leaking more than six billion gallons of fresh water a day. In a world of increasing scarcity, we can’t afford to lose that much water. Kato believes artificial intelligence could cut that cost by almost 40% and his company Fracta, is working with the city of San Francisco to prove it.

Walter Isaacson: Underneath the feet of San Franciscans, lies nearly 1,250 miles of water mains and about a third of that system is at least 75 years old. In 2011, the city’s public utility set a goal to replace 15 miles of water mains a year. But their big question was how do you decide which water mains to prioritize. Fracta’s AI works by analyzing more than a thousand data points to calculate a likelihood of failure for any given element of San Francisco’s water system. One of the most important data points is corrosion.

Takashi Kato: There are factors which generates corrosion. As corrosion is a chemical reaction between the surface of the pipe and the soil outside of the pipe, we collected tons of data, such as soil data, weather data, which showed the possible impact for the deterioration of pipes.

Walter Isaacson: Other key data points include the age of the water main, its diameter, its construction material, chemical changes in the ground over time and seismic risk. Fracta’s algorithm assembles all of this data and learns to see patterns in the way water mains degrade. Kato is able to plot these patterns on a map of the city and determine which areas have the highest risk of failure. This information helps San Francisco prioritize its rehabilitation work in an accurate and highly cost-effective manner.

Takashi Kato: I was very surprised how much money is being spent in order to maintain that underground asset across the United States. It will take $1 trillion over the next 30 years just to replace the water main pipes. If my maths is correct we can save nearly 40% of the amount of $1 trillion, which means $400 billion can be saved by just using our software. This is a big [inaudible 00:16:44].

Walter Isaacson: Fracta can potentially help water utilities in America save billions of dollars and an immeasurable amount of water. But what if you can’t easily access a supplier fresh water, afford to desalinate seawater or build a new underground water network? On top of that, what if the freshwater that you do have is also contaminated?

Walter Isaacson: Five years ago, a video of Bill Gates drinking a glass of water, went viral around the internet. It wasn’t because one of the world’s wealthiest man just happened to be thirsty. It was because of the water itself. Five minutes before Gates took that step, that water had been a pile of feces. The man who handed Bill Gates that glass never dreamed he would invent a machine that could turn sewage into water. Like most of us, he didn’t see the need for it.

Peter Janicki: One of my salespeople put this note on my desk from the Gates Foundation, asking if we were interested in working on sanitation.

Walter Isaacson: This is Peter Janicki. He is the founder and CEO of Janicki Industries and Sedron Technologies. Sedron develops advanced water, energy, and waste treatment technologies.

Peter Janicki: And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s a solved problem. Why would I work on something that’s a solved problem?”

Walter Isaacson: But luckily, Janicki’s curiosity got the best of him. So he accepted the challenge, but forward by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Peter Janicki: And as I started working with those guys and I traveled to Africa and I traveled to India and I saw the immense magnitude of this problem, I started to think, “Okay, wow, this is not a solved problem.” As I started digging more and more into this problem that so many people don’t even have decent sanitation, they don’t have clean water. It’s awful. I was like, “Okay. There is a huge, huge opportunity here to develop some technology that can have massive impact around the world.”

Walter Isaacson: Janicki was now on a mission to solve the global water sanitation crisis and it is a crisis. 10 years ago, the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation, a fundamental human right, but there are two billion people around the world who still don’t have access to safe drinking water. The African city of Dakar, Senegal is one such place. Half of the population of the city, about 1.25 million people, live without access to toilets and plumbing. On top of that, the city’s groundwater has been contaminated by open sewers and crumbling infrastructure. Janicki traveled more than 6,000 miles to visit Dakar and learn from their water and sanitation experts where he could contribute. He realized that sanitation infrastructure is incredibly costly.

Peter Janicki: So fundamentally, the problem is really a financial problem. The solution we used in the United States for wastewater requires this immense amount of water and this immense amount of power and an immense amount of money. So all of that becomes impossible in these countries. We need a technological solution that’s different, but it can’t be a technology that imparts more cost to these people.

Walter Isaacson: So where do you get the money to the sanitation system?

Peter Janicki: It has to come from the sewage. The material that you’re receiving is where the value has to be. it turns out that if you look at what’s coming out of a septic tank, or out of a pit latrine, actually everything in there has huge value. The problem is it’s all mixed together. If you could separate it into its constituent components, every component actually has great value.

Walter Isaacson: More than 75% of human feces is actually water and water is a valuable commodity. Sewage also is made up of chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen, and these chemicals can be extracted and used as fertilizing agents. Having spent the extra time learning about Dakar’s particular situation, Janicki began to put the pieces together. He built the machine he calls the Omni Processor.

Peter Janicki: This Omni Processor has so much amazing technology in it from how we’re generating the electrical power and the boilers and the steam generation and the heat transfers and the dryer and there’s just all of this stuff.

Walter Isaacson: The Omni Processor works by boiling raw sewage and capturing the water vapor. While the water vapor filters through a series of condensers and membranes, an incinerator bakes the sewage producing a fine, nutrient-rich ash. The steam energy produced by the incinerator feeds a generator that actually powers Janicki’s Omni Processor. This way, the machine can produce all the electricity it needs to operate.

Walter Isaacson: In addition to creating fertilizer and electricity, Janicki’s machine produces up to 6,000 gallons of fresh clean water every single day. The Omni processor was delivered Dakar in 2015. This year, an updated version will be installed there and in other cities in West Africa. Bill Gates asked Peter Janicki to create a solution to the sanitation crisis and he ended up inventing a machine that also produces clean drinking water. In a world where every drop counts, that’s a remarkable achievement.

Peter Janicki: We will be able to tell our children how there was a time where these millions and millions of people were sick because they didn’t have access to clean water and they were living in polluted environments and we’ll go, “Can you believe we lived in that world?”

Walter Isaacson: For Janicki, he was able to find drinking water in a where no one else thought to look. It was right under everyone’s nose, but isn’t that often where many of the best ideas are hiding? In fact, the thing that’s under your nose at this very moment, the air you’re breathing, is composed of invisible water molecules too. That fact has some people wondering, can we pull drinking water out of thin air?

Walter Isaacson: A lot has changed in the land of Israel and Palestine since Simcha Blass kicked at the dirt under that big tree, but conserving and protecting fresh water remains critically important and finding new sources of water can be the difference between life and death. In the Gaza Strip, nearly two million Palestinians live with limited access to fresh water. Decades of conflict have left Gaza with chronic electricity shortages and damaged infrastructure. As the population grows, so does the problem of ensuring that everyone has enough to drink, but in Israel, the legacy of Simcha Blass is still thriving and the next innovation in water technology is inspired by the air all around us.

Zach Fenster: The idea of water from the air is one that seems miraculous and is miraculous, but it’s also frankly, something that we encounter in nature and in many appliances, right?

Walter Isaacson: Zach Fenster is the vice president of government relations and business development at Watergen.

Zach Fenster: There’s not enough drinking water in the world. And certainly with the expansion of the global population and global warming, that gap is only becoming bigger and bigger every day. We need to turn to a new source of clean drinking water, and that sources the air and we in Watergen are the ones bringing that clean drinking water to those who need it.

Walter Isaacson: Like an air conditioner, dripping water as a byproduct of cooling, hot, humid air, Watergen’s machines, inhale air, condense it and exhale water, but Watergen’s heat exchangers also clean the air, no matter how polluted it might be, producing perfectly drinkable water. The technology can be deployed in office buildings and homes, but it can also reach almost any water depleted place on earth.

Zach Fenster: By delivering clean drinking water directly to the point of use, we are able to provide clean drinking water to the remote village, to the off grid school, to the hospital that is completely quarantined for fear of infection. So rather than, for example, have to truck in or bus in distilled water or purified water, by putting our machine there, we were able to create clean drinking water onsite.

Walter Isaacson: That adaptability is precisely what makes a technology useful in the modern world, especially in the Gaza Strip, where for the past year, the Al-Rantisi Hospital has been critically short of water. Luckily, Watergen found itself in a unique position to help. They loaded a machine about half the size of a garden shed onto a truck and drove it through a series of military checkpoints into the Gaza Strip. When they reached their destination, a crane hauled it to the hospital#s rooftop. Immediately, it began to generate 200 gallons of fresh water a day and Watergen and their partners are working to secure enough machines to possibly end Gaza’s chronic water shortages for good. In a world where the scarcity of resources such as water often leads to conflict, you might think that Israelis and Palestinians would struggle to work together, but Fenster sees it a different way.

Zach Fenster: Ultimately, water is something that unites us, that hospital contains inside it the only pediatric cancer ward inside of the Gaza Strip. Of course, because of the current situation with COVID-19 and fears around contagion, the immunosuppressed status of those pediatric cancer patients is of extreme concern to the hospital. So by putting our machine there, we were able to create clean drinking water onsite. They’re drinking it as we speak.

Walter Isaacson: For millennia, the success and growth of cities, nations, and empires has been closely linked to their ability to access fresh water. But as the global population grows, as climates change and as our water systems age, new innovations are needed to address this timeless problem. If we succeed even amid a changing climate, there’s a good chance there will always be a drop to drink. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. I’d love to hear what you think of the show. Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listened to today’s episode. Thanks for listening.