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Water out of thin air

December 05th, 2012
topics:Nature
by:Itai Lahat
located in:Namibia
tags:bio-mimicry, Namib Desert, Namib Desert Beetle, water

There are nearly four quadrillion gallons of water in the air, yet people all over the world are still thirsty. Scientists have been working to break into this untapped resource for over a decade, and are making some incredible breakthroughs.

A group of them has created a water bottle that can fill itself by harvesting water from the air. It is thought that a concept such as this could be one way to help some of the huge number of people around the world with limited access to clean drinking water. However, the potential is much bigger.

Progress in this field has been made by studying the survival mechanisms of an insect living in one of the most hostile regions on the planet. The Namib Desert, located on the Southwest African coast, has sands reaching temperatures upwards of 140 °F. Here, there is less than 1/2″ of rainfall per year, yet the Namib Desert Beetle manages to survive each and every year.

The Namib Desert Beetle, also known as the stenocara, is equipped with armor like shell covered with bumps. The peak of each bump is hydrophilic, meaning that it attracts water. The slopes and valleys in between bumps are hydrophobic, meaning they repel water.

The Beetle climbs atop a desert hill in the morning as a fog sweeps over the land. The stenocara angles its body into the wind and miniscule water droplets from the fog stick to the hydrophilic peaks and gradually form droplets. Once enough water has accumulated, the droplets roll effortlessly down the hydrophobic slopes directly into the insect’s mouth, sustaining its life in the normally inhospitable environment.

The researchers at NBD Nano have mimicked the beetle’s shell in the water bottle design, which they hope to have on the market by 2014. “We see this being applicable to anything from marathon runners to people in third-world countries,” said Deckard Sorensen, NBD Nano co-founder. “We realize that water is such a large issue in the world today, and we want to try to alleviate those problems with a cost-efficient solution.”

Researchers are mimicking this natural trait to develop a range of important water harvesting platforms, including tent covers and roof tiles several times more effective at capturing H2O than the next most effective method. In the near future, it looks as if we’ll have water bottles that can capture drinkable water from the air as well.

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Itai Lahat
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