Monday, February 16, 2009

Dr Max's windmills for water


Here's an idea that could improve Australia's water problems in a much grander way than any old rainwater tanks, grey water systems or two-minute shower timers.

It's called the Whisson Windmill and it extracts water from the air using windmill-based technology. If every house had one in the backyard, it would be like having your own wind-supplied fresh water stored on site just waiting for you to use.

Dr Max Whisson is a keen scientist and inventor - he created various safe hypodermic needles at the height of the AIDS crisis - and came up with the bold yet simple idea of extracting clean water from the air in much the same way dew or frost is created in nature.

Phillip Adams wrote about him first in this story, and this article from Erik Leipoldt's Alternate Energy Sources explains the technology better than I can.

I am a big Australian Story fan (how good was last night's story about the Jesus Christians and the mother desperate to stop her son donating a kidney?), and three weeks ago I caught the end of an episode about the good WA Dr Whisson and couldn't help wanting to find out more.

I called Max up this morning to have a quick chat, and was delighted to hear him pretend not to be Dr Max Whisson until he knew who I was and why I wanted to talk with him. I confessed my delight at his Whisson Windmill idea, and sensed he was flattered yet strangely uncomfortable.

"I'm a bit embarrassed at that name, Whisson Windmill," he finally admitted. "I have thought about other names - perhaps Wind Water Harvester?"

But I rather like the name Whisson Windmill, not least because alliteration always arouses interest and the name credits the man who came up with the idea.

(I also liked the name of one of Whisson's first patents - Spots-Stops. "That's a palindrome you see, I thought it was very clever," he says, of the invention that is essentially an eyelash to go on the back of a woman's shoe to stop puddles splashing the back of her legs. "Inventing is a disease and I'm trying to find a cure. My patent attorney says 'no, not another one'.")

The Whisson windmill is better than rainwater tanks ... no one has to wait until rain falls to collect water. It's better than grey water re-use ... as long as there is wind, there is water to be harvested. And it's better than waiting years for politicians to act.

Dr Max Whisson has asked his small team of financial backers to ensure that the first Whisson Windmills are rolled out in remote communities that don't have any fresh water.

"The first units should go to communities in need, where people carry pots of water on their head for 20km each day," he says. "I would very much like that to happen. This does have wide implications internationally. It can supplement the water supply of cities but to me it's exciting because it gives remote communities clean water."

Whisson says none of the windmills are available for sale yet, but hopes the first water-making windmills will cost between $30,000 and $40,000 and be available within months. "I've always said I would like it to be the price of a good car. Prices should fall once production gets going," he says. "The first ones might be too big for houses to put one in the backyard, but eventually they will be small enough for people at household level."

Dr Max Whisson's inventions have hardly made him a rich man, but I sincerely hope this one makes the commercial grade as quickly as possible.

"There is a vast difference between an invention from your backyard and an invention you have to create an industry for," he says. "Governments make it very difficult and there are so many barriers."

What do you think? Should inventions like this be supported and commercialised as quickly as possible?

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