Water. Its absence has ignited wars and leveled societies. It’s our most precious commodity and one that is growing increasingly scarce.

What if you could pull it out of thin air?

Cody Friesen, founder of Arizona startup Zero Mass Water, is on a mission to do just that.

“Drinking water is a fundamental human right,” Friesen said. “We intrinsically own the air we breathe by just taking a breath, and almost no one on the planet owns the water they drink.”

Friesen developed Source, a solar panel that draws moisture from the air we breathe and condenses it into drinkable water.

“Anybody who has an air conditioner makes water from air. There’s nothing magical there,” said Friesen. “What we set out to do is to develop a solar panel that makes drinking water instead of electricity.”

Source: Zero Mass Water

How does it work? Imagine a salt shaker with grains of rice interspersed among the salt. The rice absorbs moisture, keeping the salt dry. Zero Mass Water developed a material that acts like those grains of rice, absorbing water from the air.

Water is extracted from that material and purified. Source adds calcium and magnesium to match the flavor and pH of bottled water. The device can deliver 5 liters of water a day, enough to sate a family of four.

Because Source is powered entirely by solar energy, it can operate unconnected to a power grid or centralized water supply. It is a leapfrog technology much like solar panels and cell phones, which have allowed those in developing countries to generate electricity and connect to the internet without constructing power plants or installing phone lines.

Friesen (center) with his colleagues in Arizona. Source: Zero Mass Water

Friesen says panels are built to last and maintenance is easy. Refill the mineral supplement every now and then and look out for repairs.

“Anyone who can use a Phillips-head screwdriver can do maintenance on the system,” he said. “It’s all within arms reach and very, very simple.” Before long, he says, replacement parts will be available online.

Friesen, a professor of engineering at Arizona State University, developed Source in the dry Southwest. The invention has already garnered interest from consumers in California and Arizona who want to use it replace bottled water.

Source will prove more valuable to consumers in developing countries. Roughly one in ten people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Climate change threatens to exacerbate this problem by fueling drought in vulnerable regions. A machine that can draw moisture from the air would be eminently useful.

Zero Mass Water has already installed panels in the United States, Mexico, Jordan, and Ecuador. Friesen recalled the story of one family in Ecuador, with a young daughter, that installed a panel.

“It fundamentally changed that little girl’s life,” said Friesen. “She went from having no clean water… to, all of a sudden, having perfectly clean, beautiful drinking water.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.