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Breakthrough hydrogel device turns hot summer air into drinkable water

New technology from The University of Texas at Austin can transform hot summer air into drinkable water, a potential game-changer for regions of the world dealing with water scarcity.

Over the years, the researchers have focused on exploiting the moisture in the air as a viable drinking water source for populations enduring droughts. 

Hydrogel device

The research, which is documented in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has resulted in a notable achievement: a molecularly engineered hydrogel capable of generating pure water using sunlight.

The team successfully extracted atmospheric moisture and converted it into drinking water using solar power. 

Impressively, this conversion can happen in temperatures as low as 104 degrees, which is comparable to the summer climate of Texas and other regions.

The hydrogel device could be simply placed outside, requiring no further human intervention, to spontaneously generate drinkable water. 

Remarkable capability 

“With our new hydrogel, we’re not just pulling water out of thin air. We’re doing it extremely fast and without consuming too much energy,” said Guihua Yu, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and Texas Materials Institute. 

“What’s really fascinating about our hydrogel is how it releases water. Think about a hot Texas summer – we could just use our temperatures’ natural ups and downs, no need to crank up any heaters.”

The device’s capability is remarkable, yielding between 3.5 and 7 kilograms of water for each kilogram of gel materials, depending on humidity.

Rapid water capture

Another crucial development is the hydrogel’s transformation into “microgels” or microparticles. This conversion boosts the device’s performance, making water capture and release incredibly rapid. 

“By transforming the hydrogel into micro-sized particles, we can make the water capture and release ultrafast,” said study lead author Weixin Guan, a graduate student in Yu’s lab.

“This offers a new, highly efficient type of sorbents that can significantly enhance the water production by multiple daily cycling.”

Revolutionizing water access 

Efforts are underway to refine the technology, especially optimizing the microgel engineering to elevate efficiency. 

The broader objective is to realize a scalable, cost-effective, and portable solution, potentially revolutionizing water access in nations like Ethiopia, where nearly 60% of residents don’t have clean water access.

“We developed this device with the ultimate goal to be available to people around the world who need quick and consistent access to clean, drinkable water, particularly in those arid areas,” said study co-author Yaxuan Zhao, who is also a graduate student in Yu’s lab.

Further exploration 

The team is exploring organic material-based versions of the device to ensure affordability during mass production. These innovations aim to maintain product durability and facilitate absorption of moisture. 

The research is also focused on making the devices portable for various applications.

Significance of the study

“With increasing global demand for freshwater and the concurrent dwindling of traditional water resources, it’s imperative to explore sustainable alternatives for water supply,” wrote the study authors. 

“Atmospheric water harvesting (AWH), a potential solution, faces challenges due to the energy-intensive release of captured water.”

“Addressing this issue, our study introduces the concept of molecularly confined hydration in thermoresponsive hydrogels, enabling more efficient water release at lower temperatures. This technique, when coupled with photothermal absorbers, harnesses solar energy, bolstering the sustainability of AWH.” 

“This advancement contributes to our understanding of hydrogel design for AWH and signifies a crucial step in the global efforts to mitigate the intensifying water scarcity crisis.”

The project is supported by the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research from The Welch Foundation and the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award.

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