Water Out of Thin Air
Invention Offers Trickle of Hope for Climate-Driven Crisis
By Chris Carroll
Illustration by Valerie Morgan
A water bottle that fills itself. Irrigation systems that grow crops without ditches or wells. A pop-up lifeline for communities increasingly parched by climate change.
What sound like magic tricks or infomercial promises are some of the possibilities of a new technology from UMD engineers that’s able to suck water directly out of the air using cheap, plant-based materials produced in a simple facility. Affordability is a key attribute of what in May was named the university’s Invention of the Year, and then in August became one of the winners of the 2023 R&D 100 Awards recognizing worldwide science and innovation. Dubbed Aquair, the invention is designed for the 2 billion people expected to suffer from water scarcity by midcentury, mostly in low-income areas unable to buy costly, high-tech solutions.
“The most expensive piece of equipment to make this is something that can reach 500 degrees—basically an oven,” says mechanical engineering Professor Teng Li, who’s leading the research.
The resulting material is an unassuming chunk of rigid black foam. When exposed to air, its microscopic pores absorb nearly seven times its weight in water within an hour or two, depending on humidity levels; the technology even works in the desert. Solar or electrical heating extracts the moisture for collection, resulting in pure, distilled water. The next step is to scale up the core technology into problem-solving products, Li says.
The discovery came out of Li’s and colleagues’ research with cellulose, which gives plant cells their structure, aimed at finding an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic. “You can do a lot with these natural materials,” says co-inventor Bo Chen, a postdoctoral researcher, “and there is no shortage—they’re everywhere.”
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