Technology which promises to generate a litre of water, in sunny weather, from every metre of roofing surface on farm buildings has taken a starring role in the inaugural Bridge Hub Water Challenge.
By using a surfacing product which has been nano-engineered to attract water vapour, the University of Sydney's groundbreaking development can literally turn thin air into H2O, 24 hours a day, without using any energy or moving parts.
The atmospheric moisture collection process is still largely secret while international patent applications await approval.
It works by mimicking the natural water repellent characteristics found on the surfaces of insects such as beetles to accelerate surface condensation at an average rate of a litre a day for every square metre covered.
Its breakthrough applications potentially range from passively capturing household drinking water on farms or in regional communities, to providing supplementary water for horticultural crops or animals, or water sources for military personnel and outdoor adventurers in remote camp spots.
Sydney Nano team leader Professor Chiara Neto said the flexible technology may even be adaptable to ground surface applications on 45 degree sloping land, draining into water storage reservoirs.
Depending on viable commercial applications and the level of investor support the project gains, the Advanced Capture of Water from the Atmosphere team has predicted a product may be a commercial reality within a few years.
The ACWA team is exploring options to privatise the university research venture next year having just scored a big morale boost and $25,000 cash with its Bridge Hub Water Challenge win.
ACWA is also entitled to as much as $100,000 in investor funding from the Blue River agribusiness group after claiming the Australian research category in Bridge Hub's search for innovative ideas and start up companies to improve sustainable water use in agriculture.
Our ability to solve problems across the agrifood supply chain is only limited by our imaginationCraig Shapiro, Bridge Hub
Bridge Hub chief executive officer and Blue River principal Craig Shapiro said there was an increasing pool of capital available to invest in agrifood technologies which could improve water use efficiency.
This included capital from a growing number of global impact investors seeking real financial returns who also wanted their investments to have a positive and sustainable impact on the environment or society.
The water challenge, launched in March, attracted more than 150 researchers and entrepreneurs from Australia, New Zealand and Israel.
Other winning entries included an Israeli startup's decentralised wastewater treatment solution creating clean water in off-grid communities, and Australian startup business Streamwise DI's artificial intelligence to improve food manufacturing waste water management.
Also sharing the prize pool from across the Tasman, a NZ AgResearch acoustic sensing technology project which helps farmers irrigate more efficiently, and RiverWatch's real time monitoring option to measure water quality in waterways.
"The quality of all the applicants highlights that our ability to solve problems across the agrifood supply chain is only limited by our imagination, as long as we have the right frameworks in place," said Mr Shapiro.
Bridge Hub is an Israeli-backed agricultural technology incubator based at Wagga Wagga in NSW, providing investment connections and support for researchers and startup ventures.
Mr Shapiro said the winning teams had won more than recognition and prize money.
The water challenge had created "a connected and collaborative community" from across the globe involving participants sharing Bridge Hub's passion for solving water-related problems.
However, he said solving water related problems needed investment.
While government-backed initiatives often enabled agrifood technology to get started, private investment would drive great ideas into commercial success.
Sydney University's Professor Neto said the prize had given a great boost to the ACWA team's ambition to create clean water where and when it was needed.
Water is big business
As water was a precious resource and water security became more uncertain due to environmental changes it must be managed carefully in dry countries like Australia.
"This scarcity also means water is big business," she said.
"In Australia alone the water entitlements market is worth more than $22 billion a year."
ACWA's technology worked most effectively in higher humidity belts in the north and eastern Australia, particularly in areas where atmospheric moisture was often quite high, yet not high enough to produce rain.
While potential farm sector market applications were numerous, investor interest in ACWA's low maintenance, low cost initiative may steer commercial development to other goals like the outdoor lifestyle or defence markets, if that was where the supporting funds came from.
The research project has evolved from work by chemistry PhD student and paint chemistry expert Ming Chiu, Professor Neto's own expertise in surface chemistry, and Professor Martijn de Sterke's skills in electromagnetism.
The team also harnessed skills from researchers such as design expert Dr Karla Straker at the university's School of Architecture, Design and Planning.
The next steps for ACWA include further development of working prototypes, testing and maximising surface efficiency, securing a manufacturer and moving to pre-market testing.