Capturing Water From Thin Air? Engineering Solutions to the World’s Water Crisis

Water is the key resource for all biological life on earth. And it is running out. Water scarcity is a growing crisis in many parts of the world – as of 2017, 785 million people lack access to clean water globally. Due to increasing droughts and climate change, access to clean water could go from a commodity for billions, to a scarce necessity within a few decades. Yet most proposed solutions are of industrial scale, and are removed from individuals by the bureaucracy. However, science may be able to provide a feasible solution for individuals and their families. In fact, it already has.
In recent years, engineers and scientists have developed ways to draw water from thin air. In reality, air really isn’t so thin. At any given moment, there are about thirteen sextillion liters of water in the atmosphere, stored as air humidity. Sequestering even a small fraction of this would make an enormous difference. Omar M Yaghi’s team at the University of California, Berkeley has designed a next-generation ‘water harvester’, which turns ambient humidity from desert air into clean water. This water harvester uses a powder made up of a novel type of material called a Metal-Organic Framework, or MOF for short. The porosity and chemical properties of the MOF allows it to act like a sponge, trapping water molecules within the framework overnight. Its material properties allow it to release the water once it is heated up by sunlight during the daytime. This water trickles down into a collection basin, from which it can be collected as pure drinking water – no filtration required. The team’s design can collect up to 1/3rd cup of water per pound of MOF powder daily, with scalability as a viable option. The innovative design is centered around a Zirconium based material known as MOF-801, but the team is already working on developing a cheaper, more efficient MOF based on aluminum. MOF-303 is at least 150 times cheaper to manufacture, and has performed well in lab testing, capturing twice as much water. These types of innovations will continue to make the technology more accessible, for those who need it the most. The work of Dr. Yaghi and his team is a perfect example of how science and engineering provide hope in facing the challenge of climate change, and creating a more sustainable future for all.

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