What better way to cool down on a 100 degree Fahrenheit day than a nice glass of sweat?
Yes, sweat. Swedish engineer Andreas Hammar has created a machine that can wring the sweat out of a t-shirt using a technique called membrane distillation. The machine spins, heats and strains out the things you’d rather not drink (bacteria, salts, clothing fibers and other substances) and then passes the resulting liquid through a special Gortex-like membrane which only lets water molecules through. The result is, according to Hammer, water that is cleaner than tap water in Sweden.
While the sweat machine performs the alchemy-like feat of turning dross into gold — converting sweat into a potable substance — it also highlights an ongoing issue in addressing the world’s water problems.
Since Monday, when the machine was launched in the southern Swedish city of Gothenburg, more than 1,000 people have been drinking each other’s sweat, with two well-known soccer players, Tobias Hysén and Mohammed Ali Khan, getting the first sip. But Hammer’s sweat machine can only provide a limited amount of water, about 0.3 ounces from a t-shirt — just a mouthful (though maybe the results would have been better if the machine were used this past week in the U.S’s Northeast and in the U.K., both of which have been mired in heat waves).
Unicef and the Gothia Cup (a global soccer tournament for youth) partnered to develop the sweat machine to highlight the world’s water problems. 780 million people in the world are without access to clean drinking water, according to Unicef. Indeed, ”not a day goes by without someone invoking an impending water crisis,” writes Giulio Boccaletti, the managing director of global freshwater for The Nature Conservancy in the Guardian.
As Boccaletti underscores, we have the know-how to solve water scarcity via a “mix of infrastructure investments, ecosystems management, and hard decisions about what water is used for.” But we stumble when it comes to making and managing long-term plans for ending water scarcity, with many countries unable to ”mobilize sufficient capital, resources and political will” to get water to those who need it.
As a case in point, Boccaletti points to the development of hydroelectic dams. The world is investing some $80 billion to produce 300 gigawatts from rivers. But in the laudable zeal to develop green energy solutions to meet the world’s endless energy needs, we could be ”jeopardizing the future viability for food production of the great rivers of the world.” Similarly, in our rush to provide food for an additional two million people by the middle of this century, we will need to expand “land under irrigation …by some 20 percent to feed an additional two billion people.” But there is a huge task in doing so while maintaining the current water supply and “without compromising the world’s aquifers and the quality of our surface waters.”
As the sweat machine shows, we’ve figured out how to extract every bit of water from materials. The inspiration for the machine’s technology comes from the space travel industry, where every single drop of water, including sweat and urine, is simply invaluable. But delivering this water to people who need it in sufficient quantities and developing and maintaining sustainble methods to prevent water shortages — those are the tasks we need to apply ourselves to.
Photo from Thinkstock