Cheap gel packs can extract many liters of water even from the desert air

More than a third of the world’s population lives in arid areas, with areas of severe water scarcity. Now researchers have developed a solution that could help people in these areas gain access to clean drinking water.

A team from the University of Texas at Austin has developed a cheap gel film made of many materials that can draw water from the air even in the driest climate. The materials that facilitate this reaction cost just $ 2 per kilogram, and one kilogram can produce more than six liters of water per day in areas with relative humidity below 15% and thirteen liters in areas with relative humidity up to 30%.

The research builds on previous breakthroughs from the team, including the ability to extract water from the atmosphere and the use of this technology to create self-watering soil. However, these technologies have been designed for relatively high humidity environments.

“This new work is about practical solutions that people can use to obtain water in the hottest and driest places on Earth,” said Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at Walker’s Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Cockrell School of Engineering. “This could allow millions of people without constant access to drinking water to have simple water plants at home that they can easily operate.”

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The researchers used renewable cellulose and a common kitchen additive, konjac rubber, as the main hydrophilic (water-attracted) skeleton. The structure of the rubber with open pores accelerates the process of trapping moisture. Another proposed component, heat-reactive cellulose with a hydrophobic (water-resistant) interaction when heated, helps to immediately release the accumulated water, so that the total energy input to water production is minimized.

Other attempts to extract water from the desert air are typically energy intensive and do not produce much. And while six gallons doesn’t sound like much, scientists say creating thicker films or absorption beds or fields with optimization could drastically increase the amount of water they provide.

Simple method

The reaction itself is simple, the researchers said, which reduces the problems of its proliferation and mass recovery.

“This is not something you need at an advanced level,” said Youhong “Nancy” Guo, lead author of the article and a former PhD student in Yu’s Laboratory, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s simple enough that anyone can make it at home if they have the necessary materials.”

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The film is flexible and can be shaped into different shapes and sizes depending on the user’s needs. Film production requires only a gel precursor that contains all the relevant ingredients poured into the mold.

“Simple gel solidification takes 2 minutes. Then all you have to do is lyophilize it and it can be peeled off the mold and used immediately, ”said Weixin Guan, a doctoral student on Yu’s team and lead researcher.

New paper appears Nature communication.


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