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New Material Could Harvest Water All Day Long

Micro-engineered, bioinspired design allows the material to collect moisture from cool fog as well as generating and collecting steam under sunny conditions

Tiny structures inspired by the shape of cactus spines allow a newly created material to gather drinkable water from the air both day and night, combining two water-harvesting technologies into one.

The material, a micro-architected hydrogel membrane (more on that later), can produce water through both solar steam-water generation and fog collection—two independent processes that typically require two separate devices. A paper about the material was published in Nature Communications on May 14.

Fog collection is exactly what it sounds like. At night, low-lying clouds along sea coasts are heavy with water droplets. Devices that can coalesce and collect those droplets can turn fog into drinking water.

Solar-steam generation is another water-collection technique. It works especially well in coastal areas because it is also capable of water purification, though it works during the day instead of at night. In the method, heat from the sun causes water to evaporate into steam, which can be condensed into drinking water.

Because the two technologies operate under such different conditions, they typically require different materials and devices to make them work. Now, a material developed at Caltech could combine them into a single device, working to generate clean water 24 hours a day.

“Water scarcity is a huge issue that humanity will need to overcome as the world’s population continues to grow,” says Julia R. Greer, the Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering and Fletcher Jones Foundation Director of the Kavli Nanoscience Institute. “Water covers three-quarters of the globe, but only about one half of one percent is available freshwater.”

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California Institute of Technology (Caltech) 2021

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