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In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker grows up on the scorching desert planet of Tatooine. His family owns a moisture farm that uses a device called an “evaporator” to extract potable water from the air.
But while the vaporizer is sci-fi fiction, the technology that makes it work may come close to reality.
Researchers in Xianming “Simon” Dai’s lab at the University of Texas at Dallas are developing a technique that draws water out of the air. They recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing a more efficient water harvesting method inspired by carnivorous plants.
There is still a long way to go before this technology can be used in humans. But researchers hope to one day create a portable device that gives people access to clean water when it’s scarce.
“We’re going to have water anywhere, anytime, anywhere. That’s our goal,” said Dai, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UTD.
Addressing water shortages
Extreme drought hit 62% of Texas in August, according to the US Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Center for Drought Mitigation, the US Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Triple-digit temperatures like Dallas experienced this summer can exacerbate heatwaves and droughts, leading to water shortages.
Dai is interested in decentralized water distribution. This means we are providing people with the water they need without using city-regulated water treatment plants or reservoirs. He has spent the past decade studying water harvesting in hopes of improving access to clean water using a natural process called condensation.
When you drink a cold glass of water outside on a hot day, small droplets may form on the rim of the glass. Warm water vapor in the air is attracted to the cold glass, where it cools and forms water droplets.
Dai and his lab aimed to harvest water using a similar approach. If you can keep a surface cool and attract warm water vapor to it, you can condense the water into droplets that you can collect.
nature as inspiration
One problem that slows down current water collection technology is that once water droplets form on a surface they have nowhere to go.
They accumulate on the surface and retard the formation of new droplets. Dai and his lab have devised a new solution to this problem: carnivorous plant carnivorous plants collect water droplets in the same way that they devour insects.
Vase-shaped carnivorous plants secrete sweet nectar to attract prey. If the insect perches on the slippery top edge of the plant, it falls into the “vase” and is digested.
By creating several T-shaped channels smaller than a human hair in diameter in a test water-collection system, which is a rectangle about two centimeters wide made of silicon, Dai and his lab I set up a similar “trap” for water droplets that have already formed.
During water collection, droplets form on the top of the slippery lubricant-coated T. The droplet then slides away from T into the channel where it is collected.
“If we can remove water droplets from the surface, we have more areas for condensation to form again,” said a student in Dai’s lab.
Lab’s catchment technology improved the catchment rate compared to models without T-channels. Boylan said the collection surfaces were able to fill a glass of water in about seven minutes under humid conditions.
The use of Dai’s flumes to make water collection more efficient has not been fully explored in existing studies. There is still work to be done before his technology becomes available for purchase.
Dai’s water collection system relies on keeping surfaces cool and drawing in warm water vapor for condensation. In particular, energy is required to produce enough water to keep your family hydrated during water shortages. The technology also relies on producing water from vapor in the air, which can make it more difficult to operate in hotter, drier climates.
Samir Rao, an assistant professor at the University of Utah with an interest in water harvesting and purification, said Dai’s work is an exciting advance in the field. He added that future research will be needed to see if this technology can be scaled up to address problems as big as national or global water shortages.
“It’s promising,” said Rao, who was not involved in the Dai research. “But the question, ‘If we make a million of these, is this promising?’ It’s something worth exploring.”
Now that Dai’s lab has laid the groundwork for the technology, his team is working to find ways to package it into something scalable and affordable. Dai also sees application of his research in systems such as air conditioners that extract steam from the air to help control the humidity in a room.
He said one of his favorite parts of exploring water harvesting is harnessing nature’s secrets to improve human life. Native to southwest Africa, the Namib Desert beetle keeps water droplets condensed on its back and drips down its mouth to stay hydrated.
Dai and Boylan hope that one day humans will be able to benefit from this process. “If nature can make it possible, we can take the idea and make it our own,” Boylan said.
Further information: Zongqi Guo et al., Hydrophilic reentrant SLIPS enable flow Separation for Rapid Water Harvesting, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2209662119
2022 Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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