Special Edition: this is a research article
Fun Meter: Cool for learning
Type: Science & Farming
Time: 1:30 min
Level of difficulty: Advanced
Good for what ages: 12 plus but Sojourn had fun with the dog
Cost: One favor. This is a private farm (sorry).
When dad said that we were going to go to a cloud farm, Sojourn and I thought that we were going to learn how to grow clouds. Which would have been pretty awesome. But that isn’t the case. They are more like cloud shepherds, milking drinking water out of the sky. We visited an experimental site, which is a partnership between Breeze Mist Water, a private company, a farming family and the government of the Canary Islands.
Can we capture affordable drinking water from clouds and mist?
The technology is super simple. What it needs to work is the right location. To get water from the air you need clouds and wind. Not all places have water underground or rivers to drink from. When we go hiking on tall mountains, the higher we go, the smaller trees get until they disappear. That is because it doesn’t rain much up there, it’s too high up. But there are plenty of clouds. There are many people who live at high altitude and in rain shadows, and they are looking to invent a tool that could make a real difference.
The Farm & The Family
The farm is beautiful. I mean really beautiful, covered in flowers and artwork. It is green, in a way I don’t see in Las Palmas. We are up at 1,350 meters and it is chilly even though it is sunny. It was 9-10 degrees and I had to borrow an extra sweater. The farm sits at the peak of a small valley with rolling grass fields. Most of the locals produce cheese, but this is a traditional farm. Agustin and Carmen have olive trees, grapes for wine, avocados, mirabelle plums, peaches and lots of other yummy fruits and pretty flowers. They have run this farm as a family for just over 20 years.
This is the rainiest part of the island and everything is amazingly green. They get lots of water in winter. So while they don’t need the system, it was a good place to test because of frequent clouds.
Sojourn didn’t pay much attention to the farm or the water system, but fell in love with their 6 month old puppy Roscon and was happy as could be. They chased balls, played tug and made lots of noise.
Some of the greatest inventions copy nature. Evolution has a cool system for fixing tricky problems. Nature always finds a way to adapt. If you can take an idea that works for a plant or animal and make it work for people, you could have something special.
The island of Hiero in the Canary islands is a volcano with no rain. Pirates often came, but never stayed because it was too dry to live. The Bimbaches, the original people of the island, had one single way to get water – El Garoé. The tree of life. It gave enough water for their small clan and animals. Sounds like a myth, but it is supposed to be true. It was from the Lauraceae family. As fog and clouds crossed the island, its leaves were able to collect water drops. The water then dripped into small ponds under the tree. While it never rains, the trees figured out how to draw water directly from the sky! In the early 17th century, a hurricane struck El Hierro and blew down the trees. After hundreds of years, El Garoé was no more. They have planted new ones, and they continue to gather water to make it habitable.
A lot of drinking water comes from underground rivers and lakes. You dig a well and pump up clean water. Rain falls and tickles through layers of sand and rock, until it is clean and forms an aquifer. This is nature’s great filter.
There are lots of ways to make water yummy to drink. If you drink from the tap in Las Palmas, it is clean and safe, but it doesn’t taste very good because of all the chemicals they use. But the system we saw copies nature. It uses layers and layers of sand to clean out leaves and other contaminants just like the earth. They don’t use any chemicals that could hurt you or the environment.
Nets & Tubes
On a hilltop, they built 18 huge nets to capture water from the clouds and rain. They were made of a tall metal frame, covered in layers of green nets. They were super tall, like my apartment. Maybe 6-8 meters? The nets were tough and thick with a wide weave and I could see through them. The metal frame was made of aluminum and light. Wind pushes clouds along the hill through the nets, and drops stick and then drip down, just like El Garoé.
Under the net was a tub to catch the water as it drips down. The tubs were all connected by pipes, which ran down the hillside to a filter system.
The filter is a metal box as tall as my waist. Water pours into the top and goes through different layers of sand. Thick sand at the top and thin sand at the bottom. Leaves and other dirt get cleaned out and then the water continues down hill into a set of large metal tanks for storage.
The tanks are the size of a camper van. The kind that pop the roof and have a place to sleep which fills the parking lot at Arguinuigin. Agustin said they each hold about 18,000L. They have two tanks and a water truck comes by whenever they call to move the water to a customer.
Does it Work?
The 18 units collect about 180,000L per year: 40,000L per year from clouds and 140,000L per year from rain. To help me figure it if that is a lot, I found out that a normal person drinks about 2L per day (thanks google). One hundred and eighty thousand liters, with 2L per person, would provide enough drinking water for 246 people for a whole year. Pretty cool.
The big water catchers sit there and don’t take much work once you have them set up. They clean the nets once in a while, once a year, they get inside and crawl through the tanks and scrub them clean. Sounds scary, right? I wouldn’t do it. Sarah said they have to replace a net every few years. I forgot to ask, but I bet they need to clean out and change the sand in the filter, kind of like kitty litter. So its not totally lazy time, but pretty close.
Does it Pay Off?
What did it cost to build? Each water capture system costs between 2-3 thousand euros. That sounds like a lot, right? Each unit captures 10,000L per year. So the first year, it costs about 30c a liter. At the supermarket next to my house, I have to pay 53 cents for a liter. Pretty good. But, you don’t have to buy the system again in the second or third or fifth year. In five years we would capture 50,000L which is about 6 cents a liter. Looking good.
What do they use the water for and how much do they make?
I found out that they actually take the water from rain, clouds and mist and give it to be put in water bottles, beer and wine. They get paid 10 cents for each water bottle and 35 cents per fancy beer. It doesn’t sound like a lot right?
In normal times Agustin said he would break even on the equipment in 2 years, but with the COVID depression, they have had very little sales. It would help if they paid to get the water certified as drinkable, but that is very expensive, and this is a test project.
They have partnered with the “Jaira” a Canarian beer company to make a special beer called Sea Clouds. We all tried it and while dad thought it was pretty great, I don’t think this is going to take the kid market by storm. It was okay, but not yummy. Maybe if they added watermelon and mint, that would be refreshing.
The Fire & The Miracle
About a year ago there was a HUGE forest fire on the north of our island. The whole community was affected. We could feel fire planes fly over our house all day because they flew right above our roof. Many people lost their homes and their farms. It was really sad. When we visited this farm, you could actually see the burned trees all along the hillside, but it stopped right at the gate and nothing inside got burned. “It’s a miracle” they said. Everyone was sure they would be homeless, but the water capture system didn’t burn and their house was safe.
The system works! It collects water from clouds, mist and rain. That is pretty darn cool. If you don’t have a supermarket nearby and can’t just dig a well, this seems pretty easy to build and a good idea if you have lots of clouds. I wonder if they could make it even cheaper, like for 500€? 2-3 years is a good break even time, but it is still a lot of money to spend upfront. I like that this way of making water is good for the environment and is totally sustainable. I hope that they are really successful.