Out of Thin Air

Zymology by | Aug 2014 | Issue #91

High on an arid hillside in northern Chile, a few hundred miles from the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, craft brewer Miguel Ángel Carcuro has erected several wooden posts and nets the size of billboards. But they aren’t soccer goals. They’re fogcatchers. With them he is able to pull about 264 gallons of water a week from the fog that rolls off the Pacific Ocean and into these barren hills.

Every week, Carcuro drives up to collect his water, which is free and potable, and uses it to brew 17 barrels of beer a month (all Scottish Ales) under the name Cerveza Atrapaniebla—Fogcatcher Beer.

“I used to have to drive a while to get that water but now we’ve built a brewery right by the fogcatchers,” says Carcuro, who was drawn to fogcatching technology because of myriad water issues plaguing this region of Chile. “The water up here in the north has problems with contamination and hardness,” explains Carcuro. “And recently we are seeing extensive periods of drought.”

His fogcatchers—he currently has 25 square meters of installed capacity—look over the agricultural community of Peña Blanca, an eight-hour drive north of Chile’s capital Santiago. The nets are tautly secured above a gutter that runs into a large gravity-fed collection tank. Local universities have built similar fogcatchers to help supply water-starved farmers who grow crops like artichokes and avocados. That’s where Carcuro got the idea.

He admits the fogcatchers don’t supply the brewery with every drop of water it needs. Carcuro uses precious and pricey tap water (each dollar buys him 130 gallons) to clean the tanks and floors, reserving the fog-caught water for brewing the namesake beer. But he’s been rewarded for that innovative thinking. Apart from the 30 accounts he’s accumulated across Chile that are attracted to the taste and novelty of the beer, Carcuro was awarded a prize from the Chilean government in 2013 for his company’s role in conserving water.

Northern Chile is running dry. Climate change is reducing snowpack and mining companies usually have first dibs on water rights. Along hundreds of miles of coastline, municipalities have been left scrambling for this precious resource. A lucky few have been able to finance the construction of desalination plants, but it’s an expensive proposition. Fogcatchers could be part of the solution.

“Chile’s ahead of the curve with fogcatchers,” says Gareth McKinley, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has climbed the hills of Peña Blanca to install fogcatchers of his own. “But this is where government can play a really good role.” McKinley thinks with proper incentives, fogcatching technology could take off much in the same way wind energy technology has. “You could imagine hills dotted with fogcatchers,” he adds.

On a recent episode of their madcap TV show, the gents from Scotland’s BrewDog brewery made a beer with fog-caught water. Setting up what looked like a long badminton net on a picturesque bluff overlooking San Francisco, they were able to harvest water from the fog that rolls into the Marin headlands.

The technology isn’t new but it’s been slow to take off. Pilot projects have been set up across Chile and in parched communities in Nepal, Eritrea and Morocco. Perhaps debuting fogcatchers in places like San Francisco will spur interest in using this simple yet effective technology to address water shortages around the world. With California’s recent drought, maybe a few American breweries will want to give it a try, too.