Scientists have for long wondered how the desert beetle, cactus plant, and pitcher plants survive in hot deserts with no ready source of water – until they found the Namib desert beetle and desert plants have a way of extracting water from thin air according to a study published in the journal Nature.
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This study was carried out by researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University after drawing inspiration from the desert beetle and plants to pull water from the atmosphere, most especially since the Earth is becoming drier.
“Everybody is excited about bioinspired materials research,” said Joanna Aizenberg, the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at SEAS and core faculty member of the Wyss Institute.
“However, so far, we tend to mimic one inspirational natural system at a time. Our research shows that a complex bio-inspired approach, in which we marry multiple biological species to come up with non-trivial designs for highly efficient materials with unprecedented properties, is a new, promising direction in biomimetics,” Aizenberg added.
The researchers found that desert beetles utilized their bumpy shell to harvest water droplets from the air, while cactus plant used its asymmetric structure to do the same, and the pitcher plant deployed its slippery surface to obtain water from the atmosphere when it is cool in the night. The researchers combined this knowledge with the Slippery Liquid-infused Porous Surfaces technology (SLIPS) that was developed in Aizenberg’s laboratory to collect water droplets from the air.
Philseok Kim, co-founder and vice president of technology at SLIPS Technologies, a spin-off of SEAS, noted that industrial heat exchangers would benefit greatly from the skill generated by this research. He stated that thermal power plants depend on condensers in order to speedily convert steam into liquid water, adding that this latest research speed up that process and improve overall energy efficiency when operated at a higher temperature.
For the desert beetle, the researchers analyzed the hybrid chemistry of its bumps which has a hydrophilic top with hydrophobic surrounding to determine how it attracted water, but then the convex bumps was found to play a role in harvesting water from the air.
“We experimentally found that the geometry of bumps alone could facilitate condensation,” said Kyoo-Chul Park, a postdoctoral researcher and the first author of the paper.
The bump shape was optimized via modeling combined with the asymmetry of cactus spines and the smooth surface of pitcher plants, providing a basis to design a material that can collect and transport a greater volume of water in a short time compared to other surfaces.
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“This research is an exciting first step towards developing a passive system that can efficiently collect water and guide it to a reservoir,” said Kim.