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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

Turning air into water: Australia's James Dyson Award winner

About The Author

CNET Editor

Seamus Byrne is the Editor of CNET Australia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Usually at the same time.

He turns air into water, like some mystical master of the classic four elements. Australian industrial designer Edward Linnacre has won this year's James Dyson Award, and, if all goes to plan, the award will help save drought-stricken farmers across the globe.

Announced last night, Linnacre wins a £10,000 prize to take his concept from prototype to industrial-scale testing. As Linnacre himself sees it, creating a smart new Airdrop Irrigation System is about a lot more than just feeding the soil. It's about saving the communities who fight for their crops in increasingly difficult conditions — all designed in a way that makes it easy for the farmers themselves to install and maintain his system.

And he's the second Australian in a row to win the global prize.

CNET spoke to Linnacre about his new technology to solve a very big problem.

The James Dyson Award logo.
(Credit: James Dyson Award)

Turning air into water sure is a catchy idea!
It is! But it's been done in many different forms for thousands of years, actually. It originates around 600BC in ancient Ukrainian towns where they were making huge rock piles, which were acting as air condensers. They were supplying towns with 50,000 litres of water, apparently. It's just been progressing in various forms since then. I think using the soil as the means of reducing the temperature of the air was perfect for irrigation, because that's where you need the water to be.

And this is a very Australian idea, isn't it?
Absolutely. It came about because of an Australian issue, which was the 12-year drought. Even though it may have broken, it's still very relevant. In Western Australia, they're going through some periods of drought, and also globally drought is increasing in severity and frequency every year. Especially with global warming, there are rising levels of soil evaporation across the globe. This is why this type of project is so important; because when the land dries out, it reflects back to the communities.

That's what struck me the hardest — what was happening to the communities in Australian rural farming. There was increase in farmer suicide, communities were decaying, due to mounting debt and years of failing crops. The lack of water was a serious issue, and the more I researched into drawing moisture out of the air, the more I thought it was such a perfect solution for Australia. Even in the driest deserts in the world, like the Negev desert in Israel, there is still a moisture source in the air that can be harvested. It is a renewable source of water.

What will this award mean for you and your product?
For me — especially with having a small prototype and various prototypes still sitting in my Mum's backyard — for me, to realise this on an industrial scale — on an agricultural level — this would never have been realised, I think, without the help of the Dyson Award. They're there to support real solutions for real-world problems. This is what I think students these days need to be concentrating on: putting their decision making toward real problems and real issues in the world. The James Dyson Award has given me the chance to realise that. To create a proper, large-scale prototype that I can then implement on an industrial agricultural scale.

A big part of your pitch is the simplicity of the device, isn't it?
It needed to be a low-tech solution, because the market is rural farmers. There's no point in bringing some high-tech, military-scale design to rural farmers. It's not going to be affordable, and, most importantly, they're not going to be able to maintain that themselves, implement it themselves or understand the philosophy behind it. With a low-tech solution, they can install it and they can maintain it. It's much more appropriate to the rural farmer market.

There are a lot of high-tech solutions out there, but they require basically their own mini-power stations to run refrigeration units to reduce the temperature of the air. Whereas such a low-tech solution as using the soil to reduce the temperature of the air to produce condensation is just simple, so it can be easily maintained by a rural farming community.

Was there a particular moment when you were struck by this problem as the one you wanted to solve?
Absolutely. It was so black and white when I spoke to a family friend of mine. He's an Orange farmer in Mildura. That was the area I was investigating — the Murray-Darling region, where some of the most devastating consequences of the 12-year drought were occurring. He was telling me about the condition of the soil, and how it was drying out. So I was researching that and looking at what was happening there. And those rates of evaporation meant there was a huge increase in atmospheric water vapour. That was actually acting as one of the worst greenhouse gases.

So, number one, the water is evaporating from the soil and rendering it infertile. Number two, the vapour is then going up into the atmosphere and contributing to the problem that greenhouse gases contribute to. I thought, there's got to be a way to capture that moisture as it is leaving the soil and feed it back down into the soil. Therefore, you are both aiding in the restoration of the soil and preventing further drought, and you are stopping that vapour from moving into the atmosphere.

Edward Linnacre's James Dyson Award-winning design.
(Credit: James Dyson Award)

Aussies have won this award twice in a row now — does the classic "tie it up with wire" attitude make us good innovators?
It must be. The previous project was looking at a really Australian issue — the trouble we have with lifesaving on our beaches. So many finalists were about lifesaving issues. Maybe why we have such success is because our ecosystem is so diverse. We have rainforests, we have coastal issues, we have drought conditions. We're able to look to the problems we're having, and look for solutions. It gives us huge scope for problems to look for, especially for students. There is a lot going on in Australia, especially around climate change. People say "look to Australia" for what is going to happen to the rest of the world because of climate change. We're having these problems, and we're trying to solve them here. I think that gives us a huge opportunity for projects that have a global scope.

What would you suggest to others out there with a clever idea in the back of their mind?
If they want to produce it, they've got to look at realising the concept through a prototype. No one will take a look at you if you have not realised the concept in some way. Then you've got to search for that support. Entering competitions, like the James Dyson Award, is perfect because they encourage innovation. There is a growing support system in Australia for innovation. With the carbon tax, they've brought in a fund for renewable energy and resource innovation. Now's the time.

Designers who inspire you?
I've always looked at Buckminster Fuller. He's a childhood inspiration for me. He's taken design thinking across so many fields, from architecture to product design. There needs to be an application of innovation across all fields together, and look for multidisciplinary solutions. He's just such an inspiration for that. Plus, I love geometric perfection. Also, successful Australians, like Marc Newson, people who have entered the international scene of design and shot straight to the top. We're very isolated down here in Australia, but if you can enter the international scene and succeed, then you're an inspiration. To me, and I'm sure to many aspiring Australian design students.

Where does the Airdrop Irrigation System go from here?
A large-scale prototype, and then hopefully looking at an industry partner. At the moment, I'm in the process of patenting the device. That's very important for me, and I'm sure it would have been very important to James Dyson. I know he got challenged by Hoover back in the day, and was almost bankrupt. So I want to make sure it's totally protected, and I'm taking those steps right now.

Definitely I'd like to see this implemented, not just on a scale across Australia, but on a global scale to look at what it can do for drought-stricken communities across the globe.

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