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WASHINGTON — Army contractors may have found a way to make water out of thin air.

Thousands of gallons out of thin, dry, hot, desert air, actually.

Contractors working with the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) say they’re on the verge of perfecting new machines that will pull water vapor out of the atmosphere to create a nearly unlimited reservoir of drinking water for troops.

Service officials confirmed that testing of the new technology is already under way, and, if successful, the project could have a dramatic impact on transportation and supply operations throughout the world.

TARDEC officials said water distribution can account for up to 40 percent of the daily sustainment requirement for a typical army unit. Cutting down on water convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan could trim transportation expenses, conserve fuel and save lives, officials said.

No information has been released on when the new machines could be put into the field or even what they might look like after the military is finished analyzing and refining them.

But contractors from Aqua Sciences and Hamilton Sundstrand believe that in a few years, troops will be using the new technology.

Water, water everywhere

Officials emphasize that these aren’t a new type of condensation machines. Those devices have been used commercially to produce fresh water in the past, but they require high humidity — with lots of water vapor in the air — to pull liquid from the atmosphere.

In desert climates, they’re often worthless.

The companies working with the Army are using chemical mixes that attract water molecules. Abe Sher, chief executive officer of Aqua Sciences, said that’s not a revolutionary new concept.

“It’s just like seeing salt clump up in a saltshaker,” he said. “The water is attracted to the salt, and it’s drawn out of the air. We’re just figuring out ways to do that continuously.”

Aqua Sciences’ system uses a patented salty solution whose molecules attract and then pluck the water vapor atoms out of the air. Sher said his machine separates the new water from the briny mix, producing potable water.

Hamilton Sundstrand’s device uses a solid desiccant wheel — a slowly spinning chemical block — that produces similar results. While one side of the wheel is collecting moisture from the air forced through it, the other is heated and cooled to draw usable water out.

“It’s an idea that’s been used for 40 years in industrial drying work,” said Steve Tongue, manager of Hamilton Sundstrand’s Advanced Systems department. “But our wheel is more effective and can work in much harsher environments.”

In theory, the chemical compounds in both machines will draw water vapor molecules out of the air even if the humidity is near zero percent.

Cheap drinks?

Past attempts at such technology have been too large and inefficient to absorb water from the drier air. Both companies say they’ve solved those problems, although many of the details are still corporate and military secrets.

Health experts estimate that troops in hot weather need around six gallons of water a day, including water for drinking, cooking and basic hygiene.

Tongue said the prototype for his company’s machine measures 36 inches by 39 inches by 46 inches — roughly the size of an oven — and is designed to be able to fit inside military vehicles like a Humvee. It will produce about 2.5 gallons an hour.

Aqua Sciences initial prototype is much larger: Their 20-foot trailer was designed to hook into the back of a truck, and produce more than 25 gallons an hour.

Sher said the company is working on smaller versions as well. Tongue said his group has a 20-foot-long version of its machine under way, too.

The technology isn’t cheap. Florida emergency response officials recently paid about $1 million for a pair of 40-foot Aqua Sciences trailers. Outfitting a brigade with enough equipment to handle their water needs could cost significantly more.

But bottled water costs between $15 and $30 a gallon when transportation expenses are factored in, according to military estimates. The companies say that over the course of a year, they can produce a gallon for less than a dollar.

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