Nature’s Innovations Help Researchers Pull Water Out Of Thin Air

Some of nature’s finest innovations can be seen in the ways different plants and animals survive. Now a few creatures living in extreme environments have inspired scientists to design a new material that can pull water out of thin air. According to a study published in the journal Nature, researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences drew inspiration from a Namib beetle, a cactus, and a pitcher plant.

How bumpy shells of beetles retrieve water from thin air

All three of them have different ways of collecting water from the atmosphere. The new textured material can pull water out of the thin air even in arid regions where it would be extremely difficult to retrieve water from. The unique design of bumpy shells of beetles not only allows water to condense quickly, but also form bigger droplets. Large droplets are easier to retrieve than those formed on a smooth surface.

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Kyoo-Chul Park, the lead author of the study, said they were able to make water drops grow six times faster than normal by just copying the beetle’s shell geometry. The cactus comes in after the water droplets have condensed on the bumpy surface. The new textured material mimicked the asymmetrical spikes of a cactus that quickly funnels water droplets into larger droplets. It even moves the small droplets against gravity to collect even the smallest drop from the surface.

Water drops grew bigger as temperatures improved

Another trait was borrowed from the carnivorous pitcher plant that traps small prey into a bulbous opening. Scientists added a slippery coating that mimicked the interior of a pitcher plant to reduce friction as the drops moved. Combined, these techniques helped scientists collect drops that grew bigger as temperatures increased. It could prove extremely important in dry environments where droplets evaporate even before they are collected. The new material was able to collect and transport a much higher volume of water compared to other materials.

The technique could improve water harvesting in arid places where every drop of water counts. It could also be used in industrial applications like dehumidifiers, desalination plants, and other machines.