This low-cost gel film could grab drinking water from dry air

Credit: UT Austin.

A new low-cost gel film made of abundant materials can pull water from the air in even the driest climates, report researchers.

More than a third of the world’s population lives in drylands, areas that experience significant water shortages.

The new gel film could offer a solution to help people in these areas access clean drinking water.

The materials that facilitate this reaction cost a mere $2 per kilogram (about 2.2 pounds), and a single kilogram can produce more than 6 liters (about 1.5 gallons) of water per day in areas with less than 15% relative humidity and 13 liters (3.4 gallons) in areas with up to 30% relative humidity.

The research builds on previous breakthroughs from the team, including the ability to pull water out of the atmosphere and the application of that technology to create self-watering soil.

However, the researchers designed these technologies for relatively high-humidity environments.

“This new work is about practical solutions that people can use to get water in the hottest, driest places on Earth,” says Guihua Yu, professor of materials science and mechanical engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

“This could allow millions of people without consistent access to drinking water to have simple, water generating devices at home that they can easily operate.”

The researchers used renewable cellulose and a common kitchen ingredient, konjac gum, as a main hydrophilic (attracted to water) skeleton.

The open-pore structure of gum speeds the moisture-capturing process. Another designed component, thermo-responsive cellulose with hydrophobic (resistant to water) interaction when heated, helps release the collected water immediately so that overall energy input to produce water is minimized.

Other attempts at pulling water from desert air are typically energy-intensive and don’t produce much.

And although six liters doesn’t sound like much, the researchers say creating thicker films or absorbent beds or arrays with optimization could drastically increase the amount of water they yield. The reaction itself is a simple one, the researchers say, which reduces the challenges of scaling it up and achieving mass usage.

“This is not something you need an advanced degree to use,” says lead study author Youhong “Nancy” Guo, a former doctoral student in Yu’s lab, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s straightforward enough that anyone can make it at home if they have the materials.”

The film is flexible and can be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the need of the user. Making the film requires only the gel precursor, which includes all the relevant ingredients poured into a mold.

“The gel takes two minutes to set simply. Then, it just needs to be freeze-dried, and it can be peeled off the mold and used immediately after that,” says Weixin Guan, a doctoral student on Yu’s team and a lead researcher of the work.

The US Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded the work.

Drinking water for soldiers in arid climates is a big part of the project. However, the researchers also envision this as something that people could someday buy at a hardware store and use in their homes.

The paper appears in Nature Communications.