New Material Sucks Drinking Water Out Of Thin Air

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 13, 2017 3:27 pm
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Senior author Omar Yaghi demonstrates how the MOF works using a model.

A thin lattice of metals and organic compounds could turn moisture trapped in the atmosphere into drinkable water using only the power of the sun.

By optimizing what they call a metal-organic framework (MOF) to hang on to water molecules, researchers at MIT and the University of California-Berkeley have created a system that passively catches water vapor and releases it later when exposed to heat from sunlight. Their device could offer a low-cost, sustainable means to deliver drinkable water to arid regions of the world.

Their MOF is a tangled lattice of zirconium and fumarate, an organic compound. Such frameworks are composed of a dense knot of threads perfect for holding on to molecules. By altering the composition of the framework, MOF’s can be optimized to grab different kinds of compounds — anything from hydrogen and methane to petrochemicals.

There are thousands of such materials out there, and likely more still awaiting discovery. This particular porous framework was tuned to embrace water molecules, allowing it to sift H2O out of the air. Heating the material up with sunlight forces the water through a condenser, where it can be captured and put to use.

In a paper published Thursday in Science, the researchers say that one kilogram of their material can produce 2.8 liters of water a day in conditions where the relative humidity is as low as 20 percent — about the same as most deserts. Although the material holds about 20 percent of its weight in water right now, they think they may be able to double its capacity with improved materials. The basic components are cheap and easy to acquire, they say, paving the way for large-scale production of the MOF.

The key advantage of their material is the lack of any artificial power source. After all, we pull moisture out of the air with humidifiers, but they also suck up a good deal of electricity. Powering the device with sunlight bypasses that requirement, especially important in developing nations lacking infrastructure.

Other devices that rely on a similar concept have been proposed, such as the Warka Water tower. Using designs borrowed from desert plants, the tower exploits temperature swings between day and night to capture water and funnel it to a tank. The MOF material operates in a similar way, but the porous mesh allows for more water to be held in a smaller area.

To keep water flowing constantly, the researchers say that the system could soak up water overnight to disperse during the daytime, or it could be designed to force more air through, increasing the rate of water collection. The team is still tweaking both the design and the materials to coax more productivity out of the mesh.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, top posts
  • Yvonne Thompson

    face palm. it still won’t work where it’s needed the most.

    • moderatelymoderate

      Why not

      • Yvonne Thompson

        the drought cycles leave the areas without moisture to be pulled out of the air, no mater how advanced your collection system, if there is nothing to collect it won’t work.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          “their material can produce 2.8 liters of water a day in conditions where the relative humidity is as low as 20 percent — about the same as most deserts.”

          I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on desert meteorology, but this seems to address that it WILL work in many arid and semi-arid regions. Perhaps drought cycles will periodically make it non-viable, but if it takes pressure off of aquifers or lessens economic burden during times of abundant moisture, then it will have achieved a very important purpose.

          I’m skeptical about viability in the field, but conceptually is seems handy at worst.

          • Yvonne Thompson

            agreed, on paper and in the lab, it looks good…. however, i’m inclined to maintain a more skeptical position especially with the shifting climate.

    • C.B. Villeneuve

      It has already been done in Africa. I watched a TV documentary about is just a few weeks ago.

      • Yvonne Thompson

        and the credibility of the documentary is what?? in this day and age, you can make a film about anything and put whatever spin you want on it. “a documentary” does not give me anything but hearsay it’s the equivalant of “my cousin had a friend who told him”

        • C.B. Villeneuve

          OK Have fun!

  • OWilson

    Isn’t that a known old camper’s trick to condense life saving water from the ground, or the atmosphere, using a plastic sheet?

    • Uncle Al

      MOFs are answers seeking questions, as were zeolites. Imagine streamlining vast swaths of large scale industrial processes. Who wants that?

      Mobil ZSM-5 zeolite: methanol goes in, C-8 aromatic gasoline and water come out. para-Xylene is diverted into PET. 50 wt-% useless oxygen in methanol is recycled not transported. Enviro-whinerism collapses: carbon dioxide plus water and coke (coal!!!) to producers gas. Blow over Cu-doped ZnO to methanol, then ZSM-5 to 116 octane gasoline. Who wants that?

    • aka darrell

      I do not see any resemblance to using a plastic in a campground. Perhaps you would elaborate just for me if no one else.

      • OWilson

        I just asked a question :)

        I saw this demonstrated once on some kind of survival show, The point is there always a little moisture in the ground or the air. With a little inginuity (or complicated chemsistry) it can be extracted.

  • Erik Bosma

    Bear Grylls uses his own penis….

  • Roj H

    What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.

    • Jack

      It’s a TARP!

  • Yvonne Thompson




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