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Making artificial rain in New Mexico

With Altela's system, you can put a water purification system almost anywhere.

Altela says it has a machine that can make it rain. Really.

The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company's AltelaRain System essentially mimics the evaporation-condensation cycle that makes life on earth possible. The system takes bracken, salty water; boils it; creates steam; and the steam is cooled to become purified water. Like in nature, the water gets cleaned because the salts and other materials get separated during the evaporation process. Rain isn't salty, after all, although the droplets originally came from sea water.

The key is that Altela has come up with a way to make the process energy efficient.

"Thermal distillation has been around for a 1,000 years, but it has suffered from taking too much energy," said CEO Ned Godshall in an interview. "In essence, we're making it rain."

The company, which announced it raised $7.1 million in a Series A round of funding this week, is one of the latest and more interesting entrants into the water market. Although it doesn't get as much focus as ethanol or solar panels, water technology is a growing field. Many scientists believe that shortages of clean water will be one of the first--and most dire--effects of global warming. Water shortages will impact many emerging nations, but also places like Australia, which is already grappling with drought, and China.

Some of the more interesting companies that have emerged in the past few years include NanoH2O (efficient desalination membrane out of UCLA), Ecosphere (high-pressure desalination) and Atlantium (optical technology and UV light for purification).

Another interesting facet of Altela's system is that it is modular. An entire unit that can process 250 gallons of water a day fits into a 20-foot by 40-foot shipping container. Building an entire water treatment facility involves planting a bunch of these side by side.

The modularity helps make Altela's system cheaper than reverse osmosis systems, the most common way to turn sea water into drinking water, he said. Reverse osmosis systems are huge industrial sites staffed by engineers that take years of planning.

By contrast, Altela's systems can be put almost anywhere cheaply. Industrial customers effectively can build their own autonomous water systems, similar to how they can get off the grid with solar panels.

What makes Altela's system more energy efficient? He's not saying. It's part of their intellectual property, which grew out of experiments at Arizona State University. (The company actually licenses the basic technology from ASU.) The systems harvest energy out of the condensation process, he said. Industrial users can also use waste gas and waste heat they aren't using anyway in their own processes to drive the system.

To date, the company has mostly installed its systems at industrial sites to clean heavily polluted water. But the company is expanding. It has received approval from the Navajo Nation to clean well water. One of the advantages of the system is that it is small.

"We can provide desalinated water for the world's population," he asserted.