New tech harvests drinking water from (relatively) dry air using only sunlight

A new device the size of a coffee mug can generate drinkable water from desert air using nothing but sunlight.

“With this device, you can harvest the equivalent of a Coke can’s worth of water in an hour,” says cocreator Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s about how much water a person needs to survive in the desert.”

Though that may not sound like much, its designers say the current device is just a prototype. But the technology could be scaled up to supply fresh water to some of the most parched and remote regions of the globe, such as the Middle East and North Africa, they say.

Previous attempts at low-energy water collection struggled to function below 50 percent relative humidity (roughly the average afternoon humidity of Augusta, Ga.). Thanks to a special material, the new device pulled water from air with as low as 20 percent relative humidity, Yaghi and colleagues report online April 13 in Science. That’s like conjuring water in Las Vegas, where the average afternoon relative humidity is 21 percent.

Drinking water supplies can’t keep up with the rising demands of a growing human population, and shifts in rainfall caused by climate change are expected to exacerbate the problem. Already, two-thirds of the world’s population is experiencing water shortages (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22). One largely untapped water source is the atmosphere, which contains more than 5 billion Olympic-sized pools’ worth of moisture in the form of vapor and droplets.

Getting that moisture out is easy when the air is saturated with water. But humid regions aren’t where the water-shortage problem is, and drawing water from the drier air in parched areas is a greater challenge. Spongy materials such as silica gels can extract moisture from the air even at low relative humidity. Those materials, however, either amass water too slowly or require lots of energy to extract the collected water from the material.

The new device uses a material that avoids both problems. MIT mechanical engineer Evelyn Wang, Yaghi and colleagues repurposed an existing material composed of electrically charged metal atoms linked by organic molecules. This metal-organic framework, christened MOF-801, creates a network of microscopic, spongelike pores that can trap such gases as water vapor. At room temperature, water vapor collects in the pores. As temperatures rise, the water escapes.

The team’s prototype includes a layer of MOF-801 mixed with copper foam. Left in the shade, this layer collects water vapor from the air. When moved into direct sunlight, the layer heats up and the water vapor escapes into an underlying chamber. A condenser in the chamber cools the vapor, converting it into a potable liquid. This entire process takes around two hours.

Laboratory tests of the device harvested 2.8 liters of water per day for every kilogram of MOF-801 used. As it is now, the device could be used as a personal water source in dry regions without water-producing infrastructure, Yaghi says, or the system could be scaled up to produce enough water for a whole community.

The device’s ability to produce water at low relative humidity is a breakthrough, says Krista Walton, a chemical engineer at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “No one else is using MOFs like this today,” she says.

As for the cost of scaling up, the ingredients used in the device’s metal-organic framework “aren’t exotic,” Walton says. Producing large amounts of the material “would definitely be possible if the demand were there.”


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