Artificial “beaks” could solve drought crisis

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have developed a highly efficient fog collector that can harvest water from fog and dew, inspired by a shorebird’s beak. The process could help drought-prone communities around the world meet their need for drinking water.

It is a potentially dangerous convergence of factors: Deserts and semi-arid areas cover about half of the Earth’s land. Global population growth continues unabated, especially in those regions. Climate change and rising temperatures and leading to longer, more extreme droughts in population-dense areas, including those in highly developed regions such as California.

The need for drinkable water has never been greater, and now two researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington have developed a novel solution to get water to drought-prone communities inspired by how long-billed shorebirds with thin beaks get water.

In an article entitled “Bioinspired Plate-Based Fog Collectors” published in the American Chemical Society (ACS) journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, engineering professor Cheng Luo and his doctoral student Xin Heng describe that shorebirds push liquid back into their throats by opening and closing their beaks. The researchers mimicked this phenomenon by building simple, fog-collecting, rectangular “beaks” out of two glass plates connected by a hinge. When the collector is open, it provides a large surface area where beads of fog can condense. When it closes, the water droplets slide into a collection tube near the hinge.

Luo reports that a single 25-by-10 centimetre prototype harvested about a tablespoon of water in 36 minutes. Over two hours, it gathered 400 to 900 times more water than any other natural and other artificial fog-collector.

Luo’s novel design is not the first artificial fog-collector inspired by nature. Communities are the world have been using methods adapted from those that desert beetles, cacti and grasses use to catch water from fog. But as the ACS explains, those existing techniques are complicated and costly or collect only a small fraction of the water from the fog.


Photo credit: matxutca (cindy), flickr/Creative Commons

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