Remote community trials technology that makes water ‘out of thin air’
May 7 2020
A trial to shore up the supply of drinking water in a remote Central Australian community will soon get underway, involving hydropanels that make water “out of thin air”.
The remote community of Yuelamu, about 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, has longstanding drinking water supply issues.
In 2016, after an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae infected the dam, the entire community was using a single tap to access drinking water.
Though each household now has one drinking water tap each, the Central Desert Regional Council said Yuelamu water security, like other communities in the region, was still threatened due to dwindling groundwater supplies.
Local Anmatjere man, Mack Murphy, said the water quality in the community was quite poor.
“It’s a bit salty, they have to treat the water from the main pump at the tank,” he said.
Though he was excited to see how the trial went, Mr Murphy said residents would have to wait for the results to see if it could be the solution to the community’s drinking water supply.
How does it work?
The council used a special purpose grant of about $120,000 from the Northern Territory Government to purchase the 30 hydropanels.
The panels, already in place in other parts of the country, use solar power to collect water vapour from the air, which is then mineralised and piped into a water tank ready for consumption.
Council chief executive, Diane Hood, said although she was initially sceptical about technology that claimed to make water “out of thin air” she was hopeful the trial would have positive results.
She said each panel was designed to produce 3 litres of a water a day and should function in a dry desert environment with low humidity.
“If it works it’s a different and a new solution that could really assist the communities.
Technology ‘not so far-fetched’
Australian National University’s Michael Roderick has specialised in water at the Research School of Earth Sciences.
He said, although he had not used this particular technology himself, he was familiar with how it worked and thought the concept was a good idea.
“The traditional idea is to grab the air into a container and cool the container until you get dew formed and then you collect that,” he said.
“[You then] stop-off the inlet and the outlet and then you’ve got the water trapped in there and then you can drive it off, condense it, and collect it, so it’s not so far-fetched at all.”
Professor Roderick said the water also needed to be mineralised in the process otherwise it was too pure to drink.
“Drinking pure water is not ideal for your body because the water will tend to rush into your cells, which have some salts in them,” he said.
“So basically the idea is to add some simple salts to the water, in very low concentrations, to make it similar to bodily fluids.”
Expansion dependent on results
As for whether the model could work in a larger community, Ms Hood said the council would have to wait to see the results of the trial.
But there are questions about when the trial will officially begin.
While the materials have arrived in Yuelamu, the company installing the technology is outside the NT and will need to factor in quarantine periods after crossing the border and before entering a remote community.
“I understand it’ll take about two weeks to install and get everything hooked up once we can get the contractors into town,” Ms Hood said.
“And then the trial will go over the drier winter months.”
The council will be receiving real-time data of the trial through an app that monitors the water tank levels daily.
Aboriginal community of Yuelamu fears town’s only water supply may run dry
28 June 2016
A remote Indigenous community in Central Australia fears a bore they have been relying on may run dry, after an outbreak of toxic blue-green algae last year made its main water supply unfit to drink.
About 300 residents at Yuelamu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, have been carrying their drinking and cooking water in jerry cans from the single tap at the bore to their homes since October last year.
They have relied on the bore since an algal bloom last year made water unfit to drink from a local dam that had been their primary water source.
Central Desert Regional Council chief executive Cathryn Hutton said the bore was now in danger of running dry.
“Unfortunately because of the additional pressure on that bore — because now it’s feeding the entire community — that bore is actually starting to look like it’s suffering,” Ms Hutton said.
“The saltiness in the bore is increasing and there is some talk about whether or not that bore is actually refilling appropriately.
“So the water situation in Yuelamu is pretty dire.”
Authorities looking for permanent solution
The NT’s Power and Water Corporation forecast the algae would dissipate in the winter months but the cooler weather has made no difference.
People can still shower and wash clothes with the algae-contaminated water but they cannot boil or filter the water to make it clean.
In a statement, Power and Water said the algal bloom had not reduced and they were still looking for a permanent solution.
“Ongoing testing has confirmed that there is no improvement in dam water quality,” the statement read.
“Power and Water is ensuring that there is adequate drinking water available for the residents of Yuelamu and acknowledges the ongoing inconvenience to residents.”
It added the Department of Local Government and Community Services was looking into potential funding options.
General manager for Power and Water’s remote regions Len Griffiths said “all options are on the table” but there would not be a quick solution to the problem.
“We’re not discounting any ideas and particularly from local people,” Mr Griffiths said.
“We’re putting a lot of effort into identifying local water sources, sources that might be up to a number of kilometres away.”
‘People are frustrated’
Ms Hutton said a long-term solution was desperately needed.
“People are incredibly frustrated,” she said.
“One of the things that I think we need to be mindful of is that this is a community that is exceedingly remote, slightly off the radar, and I think and their voices are not really being heard.
“I think one of the biggest concerns that we as a council have is that the (Northern Territory) budget for 2016/17 has been announced and there has been no allocation for any funding to solve the Yuelamu water issue.”
Minister for Essential Services Peter Chandler said he was not an expert on drilling water or maintaining water in remote communities.
“You do rely on the experts, you rely on the people who work for power and water, so we’re waiting for them to come up with that solution,” Mr Chandler said.
The Member for the local electorate of Stuart, Bess Price, has been contacted for comment.
A water quality specialist determined the algal bloom in October last year was likely caused by migrating bird life.
November 2015: Yuelamu (Northern Territory) – Cylindrospermopsis raciboorski)
Yuelamu: In November 2015, routine inspections identified the presence of high levels of blue-green algae (Cylindrospermopsis raciboorski) and associated toxins in the dam at Yuelamu. “While no toxins were detected in the community reticulation system (chlorination can destroy toxins), the severity of the bloom was such that there was risk that the community disinfection system would be overwhelmed by the algal bloom. IES immediately reviewed the options available to ensure public safety, and decided that supply of drinking water from the dam should cease. Supply of water was alternated to the Advanced Water Treatment (AWT) plant present in the community. The AWT receives the brackish groundwater that is present locally and treats it to a potable standard. The AWT in Yuelamu is not large enough to meet the combined drinking and sanitary water requirements of the community. In order to ensure people would continue to get safe drinking water, IES constructed a centralised potable water supply tank on the boundary of the water compound in Yuelamu for people to collect water from for drinking. A communication operation was also initiated to explain the problem to community members and stakeholders. The water reticulation system in the community was filled with local brackish groundwater in order to meet sanitary requirements (showers, toilet flushing etc.). During early 2016, IES undertook testing and investigation to assess the viability of various medium to long-term options to return potable water access to each building. Following assessment of options, the construction of a second drinking water reticulation system, drilling of a backup bore to improve security and improving the reliability of the AWT was the most feasible. Safe drinking water will be provided to one tap in the kitchen of each house through the new second reticulation system. The existing water reticulation system will continue to be filled with brackish groundwater for toilet flushing, showering and other purposes. The project is funded for construction in 2016-17”. Power and Water ADWQR 2015/16
Yuelamu/Mt Allan (Northern Territory) – E.coli
2009/10: Yuelamu E.coli 1 detection. 97% compliance during year
“Coliforms are Gram-negative, non-spore-forming, rod-shaped bacteria that are capable of aerobic and facultative anaerobic growth in the presence of bile salts or other surface active agents with similar growth-inhibiting properties. They are found in large numbers in the faeces of humans and other warm-blooded animals, but many species also occur in the environment.
Thermotolerant coliforms are a sub-group of coliforms that are able to grow at 44.5 ± 0.2°C. E. coli is the most common thermotolerant coliform present in faeces and is regarded as the most specific indicator of recent faecal contamination because generally it is not capable of growth in the environment. In contrast, some other thermotolerant coliforms (including strains of Klebsiella, Citrobacter and Enterobacter) are able to grow in the environment and their presence is not necessarily related to faecal contamination. While tests for thermotolerant coliforms can be simpler than for E. coli, E. coli is considered a superior indicator for detecting faecal contamination…” ADWG 2011
Yuelamu (South Australia ) – Fluoride
2017/18: Yuelamu (Northern Territory) Fluoride 1.6mg/L
2018/19: Yuelamu (Northern Territory) Fluoride 1.9mg/L
2021/22: Yuelamu (Northern Territory) Fluoride 1.7mg/L (max), 0.93mg/L (av.)
“Fluoride occurs naturally in seawater (1.4 mg/L), soil (up to 300 parts per million) and air (from volcanic gases and industrial pollution). Naturally occurring fluoride concentrations in drinking water depend on the type of soil and rock through which the water drains. Generally, concentrations in surface water are relatively low (<0.1–0.5 mg/L), while water from deeper wells may have quite high concentrations (1–10 mg/L) if the rock formations are fluoride-rich.” 2011 ADWG. Health Guideline: 1.5mg/L
Yuelamu/Mt Allan – (Northern Territory) – Iodine
2015/16: Yuelamu Iodine 0.19mg/L
2016/17: Yuelamu Iodine 0.16mg/L
Iodide: Based on health considerations, the concentration of iodide in drinking water should
not exceed 0.5 mg/L.
Iodine: No guideline value has been set for molecular iodine.
The element iodine is present naturally in seawater, nitrate minerals and seaweed, mostly in the form of iodide salts. It may be present in water due to leaching from salt and mineral deposits. Iodide can be oxidised to molecular iodine with strong disinfectants such as chlorine.
Molecular iodine solutions are used as antiseptics and as sanitising agents in hospitals and laboratories.
Iodine is occasionally used for the emergency disinfection of water for ﬁeld use but is not used for disinfecting larger drinking water supplies. Iodide is used in pharmaceutical and photographic materials. Iodine has a taste threshold in water of about 0.15 mg/L.
Iodide occurs in cows’ milk and seafood. Some countries add iodide to table salt to compensate for iodide-deﬁcient diets.
Yuelamu/Mt Allan (Northern Territory) – Aluminium
2007/08: Yuelamu Aluminium 0.65mg/L
According to the ADWG, no health guideline has been adopted for Aluminium, but that the issue is still open to review. Aluminium can come from natural geological sources or from the use of aluminium salts as coagulants in water treatment plants. According to the ADWG “A well-operated water filtration plant (even using aluminium as a flocculant) can achieve aluminium concentrations in the finished water of less than 0.1 mg/L.
The most common form of aluminium in water treatment plants is Aluminium Sulfate (Alum). Alum can be supplied as a bulk liquid or in granular form. It is used at water treatment plants as a coagulant to remove turbidity, microorganisms, organic matter and inorganic chemicals. If water is particularly dirty an Alum dose of as high as 500mg/L could occur. There is also concern that other metals may also exist in refined alum.
While the ADWG mentions that there is considerable evidence that Aluminium is neurotoxic and can pass the gut barrier to accumulate in the blood, leading to a condition called encephalopathy (dialysis dementia) and that Aluminium has been associated with Parkinsonism dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the NHMRC, whilst also acknowledging studies which have linked Aluminium with Alzheimer disease, has not granted Aluminium a NOEL (No Observable Effect Level) due to insufficient and contradictory data. Without a NOEL, a health guideline cannot be established. The NHMRC has also stated that if new information comes to hand, a health guideline may be established in the future.
In communication with Aluminium expert Dr Chris Exley (Professor in Bioinorganic Chemistry
The Birchall Centre, Lennard-Jones Laboratories, Keele University, Staffordshire UK) in March 2013 regarding high levels of Aluminium detected in the South Western Victorian town of Hamilton
“It is my opinion that any value above 0.5 mg/L is totally unacceptable and a potential health risk. Where such values are maintained over days, weeks or even months, as indeed is indicated by the data you sent to me, these represent a significant health risk to all consumers. While consumers may not experience any short term health effects the result of longer term exposure to elevated levels of aluminium in potable waters may be a significant increase in the body burden of aluminium in these individuals. This artificially increased body burden will not return to ‘normal’ levels when the Al content of the potable water returns to normal but will act as a new platform level from which the Al body burden will continue to increase with age.
Yuelamu (Northern Territory) Iron
2007/08 Yuelamu Iron 1.4mg/L
Based on aesthetic considerations (precipitation of iron from solution and taste),
the concentration of iron in drinking water should not exceed 0.3 mg/L.
No health-based guideline value has been set for iron.
Iron has a taste threshold of about 0.3 mg/L in water, and becomes objectionable above 3 mg/L. High iron concentrations give water an undesirable rust-brown appearance and can cause staining of laundry and plumbing fittings, fouling of ion-exchange softeners, and blockages in irrigation systems. Growths of iron bacteria, which concentrate iron, may cause taste and odour problems and lead to pipe restrictions, blockages and corrosion. ADWG 2011