This new solar-powered device can pull water straight from the desert air
You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, but wringing water from the desert sky is now possible, thanks to a new spongelike device that uses sunlight to suck water vapor from air, even in low humidity. The device can produce nearly 3 liters of water per day for every kilogram of spongelike absorber it contains, and researchers say future versions will be even better. That means homes in the driest parts of the world could soon have a solar-powered appliance capable of delivering all the water they need, offering relief to billions of people.
There are an estimated 13 trillion liters of water floating in the atmosphere at any one time, equivalent to 10% of all of the freshwater in our planet’s lakes and rivers. Over the years, researchers have developed ways to grab a few trickles, such as using fine nets to wick water from fog banks, or power-hungry dehumidifiers to condense it out of the air. But both approaches require either very humid air or far too much electricity to be broadly useful.
To find an all-purpose solution, researchers led by Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, turned to a family of crystalline powders called metal organic frameworks, or MOFs. Yaghi developed the first MOFs—porous crystals that form continuous 3D networks—more than 20 years ago. The networks assemble in a Tinkertoy-like fashion from metal atoms that act as the hubs and sticklike organic compounds that link the hubs together. By choosing different metals and organics, chemists can dial in the properties of each MOF, controlling what gases bind to them, and how strongly they hold on.