Drawing inspiration from both beetles and a cactus, this new material could change the way we use water for good.
The air is full of water, but that does little help to a desert community or a boat stranded at sea. According to a report from Popular Mechanics, however, a recent development may make the previously unobtainable water vapor as easy to drink as a glass from the tap.
The material is slick and bumpy, and draws inspiration from the shell of a beetle, the skin of a carnivorous plant and the spine of a cactus. Scientists say that the material can condense water vapor in the air into a liquid ten times faster than any other material known to exist.
A paper describing the development of the new material was published this week in the journal Nature by Harvard engineer Kyoo-Chul Park and a team of researchers. Park says the material could be extremely useful in machines that use heat exchangers dependent on water collection. “That’s anything from a thermal power plant to a water distillation plant, or a humidification system and any HVAC system used in cars, trains or airplanes,” he said.
But Park hopes the development could have applications far beyond earthly machines. “I’m a big fan of Star Wars,” he said. He imagined a condensation system using the new material collecting liquid water from vapor trapped in the air in an extremely dry region. The development could lead to what the engineer calls a “moisture farm.”
Researchers looked at the bumpy exoskeleton from the African desert beetle, the rough skin of a carnivorous plant, and the odd-shaped spines of a cactus for inspiration. Each of these organisms has adaptations that allow them to take advantage of minimal moisture in arid environments. The Namib desert beetle was particularly inspiring – it collects dew in the early morning hours with its back and survives for the rest of the day under the blazing sun with this precious supply.
The new bumpy material developed by Park and his team causes water to condense into huge droplets, which slide down ramps coated in a slick material that optimizes the rate of water collection from the air. Park and his team found that the new material could collect ten times more water in one hour than the next best material for the job.
A press release from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences describing the breakthrough can be found here.