You probably enjoyed a nice shower this morning (you are taking cold ones, right?!). Maybe you're tipping back a bottled water without much of a care except your smartphone calendar pings. But around the world, those scenes often are a true luxury, with some 783 million people lacking traditional access to clean water. Yet, water is everywhere. About 13 trillion liters of it hides in every breath we take, right in the atmosphere. Now, as Robert Service of Science reports, a new solar-powered device is getting us ridiculously close to being able to harvest some of that life-saving water around us in a practical way.

A device 2 decades in the making

Led by chemist Omar Yaghi of the University of California, beginning roughly 20 years ago, researchers figured out how to get different gases to bind with a family of crystalline powders known as metal organic frameworks (MOFs). In 2014, Yaghi and his team was able to synthesize a MOF that absorbed water well. Yaghi then partnered with Evelyn Wang, mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Together, they were able to invent a water collection system capable of grabbing 2.8 liters of water from the air on a daily basis.

How the system works

The system Yaghi and Wang came up with works on fairly elementary science principles, such as phase changes (e.g., vapor to liquid) and solar energy.

  • About a kilogram of dust-sized MOF crystals are pressed into a thin porous, sheet of copper.
  • The copper sheet sits in a chamber between a solar absorber and a condenser plate.
  • An operator opens the chamber at night, when a lack of heat from the sun keeps moisture closer to the Earth's surface. Air diffuses through the MOF, and the MOF catches water molecules on its interior surfaces.
  • An operator closes the chamber in the morning.
  • Sunlight enters the device through a window on the top. The solar energy heats the MOF and forces the collected water toward the condenser.
  • The water vapor in the device condenses into liquid water because of the temperature difference and high humidity.

Although the system currently is cost-prohibitive as it is, the developers think they can swap out the MOF it uses to make it significantly cheaper. And unlike other systems, this one can function even in low humidity, making it perfectly suitable for use even desert regions. That's significant when you consider that 85 percent of the world's population lives in the driest half of the planet.

What the system could do

Yaghi and Wang's system has been tapped as a possible solution for clean drinking water. It also has huge implications for adequate sanitation. Both areas, if tackled, could reduce instances of disease significantly. But there are other, more commercial possibilities, too. For example, depending on the scale taken with the system, it could prove beneficial to

  • hikers and campers
  • agriculture workers and home-based farmers
  • people who want to live off the grid

And that's before you consider that the system might reduce the need to draw too harshly on other freshwater lakes and rivers, a practice that has drawn concern from environmentalists for years.

Water is the foundation for every living thing. But it doesn't just represent life. It represents a way of life, changing what people can and cannot do. From that point, the water collection system sets the stage to even the playing field and open the door to significant innovations in areas of the world where they might not have been possible otherwise. That's something any true business leader can not only appreciate, but unabashedly celebrate.