By Esther Barfoot

What if we could have clean drinking water and grow crops anywhere in the world? Wouldn’t that be great?! The good news is: now we can. With the brand-new invention by the Dutch artist Ap Verheggen and engineer Peter van Geloven: a machine that turns a few drops of water into tens of litres. Even in a bone-dry desert. 

Artist Ap Verheggen speaks with a hoarse but energetic voice. His vocal cords froze while he was filming a documentary on the North Pole. Between 1999 and 2010 he travelled to the most northern part of Canada and the west of Greenland  to film the Inuit, who – in two decades time – had to completely reset their culture that went back thousands of years. As the sea ice they traditionally hunted on, had virtually disappeared. They had no other choice.


In 2009 Ap placed two sculptures with GPS-trackers on an ice berg in western Greenland to show the public how fast the climate up there was changing. ‘Until that moment the communication about climate change had been almost purely scientific. I wanted to raise awareness among the general public.’ One day in May 2009 Ap saw on his computer that the two trackers were drifting in different directions. His local aids reported the ice berg had completely disintegrated. That month it had been 20 degrees Celsius, instead of the usual minus 20.

Our local aids reported the iceberg had completely disintegrated.

Ap Verheggen

After this, Ap and his team decided not to return to the North Pole. The weather conditions and the ice had become too treacherous. ‘One day the sea completely froze over. In an hour’s time.’ Often ice bergs are shaped as a steep cliff. When a large chunk of ice breaks off and drops into the sea, it can cause a tsunami. Ap: ‘There are only so many times you can think you’re going to die. At some point, you’ve had enough.’


Icon project

But Ap still wanted to raise awareness. He decided to create an icon project. ‘I wanted to come up with the most extreme thing I could think of. To show people it is not too late for action. And to show that we humans are able to do extraordinary things, but that we also have to make haste.’ He decided to create an autonomous glacier in the desert: the SunGlacier. It would autonomously create water from thin air and run on solar power.

The sea completely froze over. In an hour’s time.

Ap Verheggen


Ap hasn’t gotten around to creating the glacier just yet. Once he started working on it, people from around the world started calling him and asking him about the autonomous creation of water. Ap was shocked by the number of stories of extreme water shortages he received from around the world. He and his friend Peter van Geloven, an engineer, started working on it, first by upgrading dehumidifiers. But then they developed their own, brand-new technology, based on a cold-water stream that catches the condensed water. ‘The system with the dehumidifiers didn’t work, because any water we caught, immediately evaporated again. With our cold-water stream, it continues to be water.’ 

Growing a crop

After 80-90 prototypes, this month they are presenting a machine small enough to fit into a flight case, yet able to produce 20-30 litres of water per day, at temperatures ranging from about 10 to 50 degrees Celsius(!). Along the way, Ap and Peter also created a closed circle that allows to grow wheat crops indoor, with autonomously created water. Plants evaporate 90% of the water they have been given. In the closed circuit, Ap and Peter were able to re-extract this water from the air and then use it again and so on. ‘Which means you only have to add very little extra water. This makes makes it possible to grow crops anywhere in the world, as water is no longer an issue.’


At this moment Ap and Peter are also creating a machine that creates hundreds of litres of water a day. It is part of the Dutch pavilion at the Dubai Expo this autumn. ‘The water the machine creates will fall in a rain shower that lasts half a year.’ And that in the middle of a hot desert. Another dream of Ap is a watermaker in a backpack, so that hikers or explorers will never again be dependent on how much water they encounter on a trail.

I believe it takes exactly this cross-over between art and science to come up with the radical innovations we need.

Ap Verheggen

Ab and Peter have financed most of this work themselves. Ap: ‘When we apply for grants we often hear: “You are artists, we only invest in science.” Or: “You are scientists. We only support the arts.” While really, I believe it takes exactly this cross-over between art and science to come up with the radical innovations we need.’ In Da Vinci’s time art and science were the same thing. Ab thinks our current society is mistaken to have separated the two.


‘We need scientists for their scientific and technological knowledge. And artists to break all the patterns. In science, it is common to do a literary review before you start with your own research. That way, what scientists are actually doing is greatly narrowing down the area of their investigation and discovery. Meanwhile, the field of exploration for any artist spans the universe.’

To receive a grant, you have to specify what you expect the end result to be. It puts the brakes on your imagination.’

Ap Verheggen

No brakes on your imagination

At first, Ap was disappointed they didn’t get any grants. ‘But then I realised: to receive a grant, you have to specify what you expect the end result to be. Then, if you decide to go in a completely different direction, it is no longer possible. It puts the brakes on your imagination.’ Another credo of Ap is that a mistake or failure is also a good result. ‘A person failing is a person who has already tried that specific thing. There is a lot of value in that.’


Ap hopes that in the next phase scientists will pick up his water machine where he and Peter will leave it. ‘It would be great if they now optimise it and are able to turn it into a mass product. I will now continue to work on my desert glacier.’


You can find Ap’s film IceBerg Riders here. 

Rebooting the system

An important thing for Ap that he will certainly continue to do is involving young people in his work. ‘Over the past 10 years, I have given a lot of lectures to students to show that the current state of technology is not enough to deal with future problems. I teach at universities around the world and do all kinds of field labs with the students. To me, that is essential. Young people are the future. They have to think in a different way about future, sustainability, innovation. They have to reboot the whole system.’


In September, Ap will launch the song “HERO” together with Dutch songwriter/singer Janieck Devy to inspire the youth to also look for solutions themselves. Ap: ‘There is a positive future for everyone, but for that we have to get to work fast.’