We are perhaps preoccupied with the weather, or more precisely, the climate, we worry about rising temperatures, melting ice sheets and dwindling glaciers, storms and floods, tidal surges and tsunami. It's all about the water. We have fought over land and territory, over mineral rights and oil, we will, inevitably, fight over water...especially when this simple yet precious commodity becomes increasingly scarce.

Many readers will have seen infographics showing the volume of fresh water as a tiny droplet compared to the size of our planet and read stories of future water shortages; 97% of the world's water is salt water. Such images, such headlines are there to scare, to instill horror even. There is truth in the fact that millions of people, particularly in the developing and what is essentially, and tragically still, the undeveloped world live in desiccated lands with no regular or easy access to fresh, clean drinking water. One might subsist on minimal food, survive starvation for days, if not weeks, but without water, life succumbs to the dust very quickly.

Thankfully, there are materials that might help solve the problem. There are relatively simple technologies that can cleanup, filter, desalinate or otherwise make the non-potable potable. Unfortunately, these systems never provide an all-in-one solution without access to a steady electrical power supply or other energy source, they are often ineffective or need filters and a lot of energy. At least not until now. A press release arrived promising patented, portable technology that uses a solar collector to heat water and can convert 15 liters of dirty, even salty, water into drinkable, distilled water.

The system developed by British company Desolenator apparently uses no consumables and should have a working life of twenty years, according to its developers. Conventional solar panels are capable of transforming about 15% of the solar energy they receive into electricity, the remaining 85% of the incident energy causes the panels to get very hot. Desolenator have revers engineered the solar panel concept instead of cooling it down they insulate  it all around, with double glazing and foam so that it gets even hotter. A steady film of water absorbs the heat up to 100 Celsius and this water is then boiled with the electricity produced by the solar panel itself and the vapor harvested and its heat exchanged back into the panel. The vapor condenses and water comes out of the device at the other end.’

The company says that it can desalinate, remove dissolved metals and arsenic from water. The problem of arsenic in drinking water is widespread on the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere an insidious and seemingly interminable environmental disaster on which I first reported in The Guardian in 1995. The Desolenator R&D is not quite complete. The team has a fully working prototype but has just launched an Indiegogo crowd funding campaign to recruit socially minded citizens and businesses to help them address the global water challenge. 

I wondered why the technology was being patented and why something with such great potential to help us sidestep the current water crisis in so many parts of the world and avoid future conflict wasn't being developed as "open" technology. Alexei Levene of Desolenator gave me this reason: "Unfortunately the way the world is if you don't patent an idea someone else will - it's a systemic issue. In principle we could make this open source in the future, however as we are putting ourselves in the public eye with an unready product, we also have to protect the integrity of what we are doing. If we are going to serve 1 billion people then we need to scale efficiently and effectively - whilst the technology is 'simple' it's not so easy to make effectively - for now we are carrying the candle to get the product ready at lowest cost and highest performance/yield. We are seeking to work with partners and look at all sorts of business models as to how we can scale including microfinance, shared ownership, crowd funding, working with aid agencies and in the future possible local assembly."

David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".