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Making water from air wins couple $1.5 million XPrize

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It started out modestly enough: David Hertz, having learned that under the right conditions you really can make your own water out of thin air, put a little contraption on the roof of his office and began cranking out free bottles of water for anyone who wanted one.

Soon he and his wife, Laura Doss-Hertz, were thinking bigger — so much so that this week the couple from California won the $1.5 million US XPrize For Water Abundance. They prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 litres) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents US a litre.

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million US over the years for what it calls audacious futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet. The first XPrize, for $10 million US, went to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan in 2004 for SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned space flight.

So when Hertz learned a couple of years ago that a prize was about to be offered to whoever could come up with a cheap, innovative way to produce clean fresh water for a world that doesn’t have enough of it, he decided to go all in.

Water for homeless people

At the time, his little water-making machine was cranking out 568 litres a day, much of which was being given to homeless people living in an around the alley behind the Studio of Environmental Architecture, Hertz’s Venice Beach-area firm that specializes in creating green buildings.

The XPrize trophy is seen at The Skysource/Skywater Alliance offices Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

He and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work. They settled on creating little rainstorms inside shipping containers by heating up wood chips to produce the temperature and humidity needed to draw water from the air and the wood itself.

“One of the fascinating things about shipping containers is that more are imported than exported, so there’s generally a surplus,” says Hertz, adding they’re cheap and easy to move around. And if you don’t have wood chips to heat them with, coconut husks, rice, walnut shells, grass clippings or just about any other such waste product will do just fine.

“Certainly in regions where you have a lot of biomass this is going to be a very simple technology to deploy,” said Matthew Stuber, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut and expert on water systems who was one of the panel’s judges.

He called their water-making machine a “really cool” merging of rather simple technologies that can be used to quickly deliver water to regions hit by natural disasters, stricken by drought or even rural areas with a shortage of clean water.

Hertz and his wife are just starting to contemplate how to accomplish that.

Mortgaged home to keep going

Theirs was among 98 teams from 27 countries who entered. Many teams were bigger and better funded while the couple mortgaged their Malibu home to stay in the game. At one point, they were told they hadn’t made the final round of five but then one team that did dropped out and they were back in.

David Hertz, left, his wife Laura Doss-Hertz, right, and project designer Willem Swart pose for a photo with an image of a $1.5 million prize. There are no restrictions on how the money can be used, but Hertz says the couple has committed to the ‘development and deployment of these machines, to get them to people who need the water most.’ (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

“If you say we were the dark horse in the race, we weren’t even in the race,” Hertz recalled with a smile. He stood near a giant copy of the check in his office while his wife prepared to leave for a photo shoot and a visitor sampled a glass of their freshly made water.

Now, though, they are in for the long, wet haul.

“There’s no restrictions whatsoever on how it’s used,” Hertz said of the prize money. “But Laura and I have committed to using it all for the development and deployment of these machines, to get them to people who need the water most.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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