As summer begins to heat up across most of the United States, one issue that doesn't seem to go away is drought--especially in dry or desert climates. Deserts make up a third of earth's surface (and oceans are 71%). Neither of these environments has traditionally been easy to live in, in large part because of the scarcity of fresh, drinkable water. Water exists in our atmosphere, too, but at levels so faint that it's generally difficult to pull out. So we rely on rain or groundwater. 

A new scientific advance still in its early stages promises to potentially add another way to harvest water, and it comes at an important time when ground water debates, water rights and drought start to "heat up." Researchers at Berkeley and MIT have engineered a device that can pull three liters of water out of even the driest desert air for every one kilogram of the substance. 

The journey began twenty years ago when chemist Omar Yaghi at the University of California, Berkeley designed metal organic frameworks, an engineered crystal. In general, these types of crystals can be tweaked to tightly bind to certain molecules. He developed one that attracts water. He then turned to mechanical engineer Evelyn Wang at MIT to develop a process and a housing for the substance that could power water collection. As reported in Science, Wang and her students designed a condenser powered by sunlight and activated by the temperature range of day to night in the desert to create a water harvester. Future testing will try to modify the device to make it cheaper to produce and easier to distribute.

While the practical application of this technology is still far away, some of the promise includes drought relief when water services are interrupted by war or political unrest; adding a means of water harvesting for cities in dry climates; and, supplementing ground water reserves. I can't resist thinking of how this kind of technology might pull water from the dry air on Mars some day. But coming back down to Earth, big picture, WHO estimates 12.6 million deaths a year are caused by complications from polluted environments--often water pollution or polluted drinking water. This promising new method of water production from the air results in a pure product with minimal energy required. Let's hope it gets developed on the fast track.