In what may be the most exciting news of the week, University of Texas at Austin researchers have engineered a solar-powered device that absorbs moisture from the air and turns it into clean water.
The technology is based on something the scientists describe as "super sponges," hydrogel and gel-polymer hybrid materials designed to retain a lot of water.
These hydrogels can also release water upon heating. "We have developed a completely passive system where all you need to do is leave the hydrogel outside and it will collect water," said Fei Zhao, a postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the study.
"The collected water will remain stored in the hydrogel until you expose it to sunlight. After about five minutes under natural sunlight, the water releases."
The novel technology is based on a 2018 breakthrough made by the same team which consisted of a solar-powered water purification system that cleaned water from any source. However, this latest development makes use of the water present in the moisture all around us.
"The new material is designed to both harvest moisture from the air and produce clean water under sunlight, avoiding intensive energy consumption," said project lead Guihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science and mechanical engineering in UT Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering.
Although harvesting water from moisture is not a new concept, most technologies that use the process are very energy-intensive. The beauty of this new system is that it requires only solar power.
In addition, the new device is compact but efficient enough to generate a daily water production of up to 50 liters per kilogram of hydrogel according to the prototype tests. That is more than enough to meet a household's daily needs.
As such, the device could see many applications in poverty-stricken areas or developing nations where water access is severely limited. But that is not all.
The system could be used to improve current water harvesting techniques making them more efficient and less energy consuming.
Yu and his team have already filed a patent and the study is published in a recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials.