It is so often the case that we don’t truly appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Water is a basic necessity; up to 60% of the adult human body consists of water- without it, we would die. Most people don’t think twice about access to clean, safe water, yet when those resources are stripped away and regions of the world where water is scarce are brought to light, people begin to take notice. For instance, California is just starting to emerge from a historic five-year drought. We are in the midst of a global water crisis where nearly a billion people in developing nations lack access to sanitary drinking water and four billion people (two thirds of the world’s population), mostly in India and China, experience severe water scarcity for at least one month out of the year.
A new invention may shake up the way we think of access to clean water, even in the most arid lands. What if water could be created out of thin air? It sounds crazy, right? Like magic. Well, perhaps this capability is not so unfathomable. Air everywhere, even in dry regions, contains moisture, and scientists have developed a device that can harness water molecules from the air without the use of solar panels, batteries, or additional energy.
This new device, which is powered by sunlight alone, is based on a new technology: a class of synthetic porous materials known as metal-organic frameworks that are able to suck large amounts of water from the air into the pores. A research team from MIT, with the help of Omar Yaghi’s laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, are the brains behind the technology.
Although the technology is complicated, the idea is simple: the porous material, which Yaghi pioneered, can be customized to capture certain kinds of molecules or allow them to pass through the device, and it has a massive surface area, allowing it to bond with a large amount of particles. The material bonds with water molecules and when exposed to direct sunlight, the water molecules are converted into vapor. Then, the molecules will pass through the porous framework of the device into an acrylic chamber where they are funneled into another chamber from which clean water can be collected.
Although the device is still in development and not an infallible technology just yet, the ultimate hope is that this technology could be implemented in the households of developing nations with limited water access, allowing families to draw water from the convenience of their homes instead of traveling to community wells where water is usually scarce and unsanitary.
The potential for this device to revolutionize global water access is certainly there, as the success of the porous water-capturing material demonstrates. According to a study from the journal Science, just one kilogram of the material is enough to capture several liters of water per day in environments with humidity levels as low as 20 percent. It is just a matter of time before a viable product is established, says head researcher Evelyn Wang.