Personalized Water: Alchemy for the Modern Age

A technology that could radically, positively, irrevocably change the world by meeting the challenge of the global water crisis.

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In the middle ages, scientists and philosophers explored the nature of our physical world, experimented with unknown elements and processes, and explored the intersection between religion and observed phenomena, between philosophy and science. Alchemy. Some of its practitioners were ridiculed; some were persecuted; some were the creators of theories that became the basis for modern invention and technology; some are amongst history’s greatest thinkers.

The most notorious search, of course, was for the conversion of base metals into gold — a pursuit that mixed ideas of altruism with greed, of intellectual discovery with power. The search has always continued and, while not gold, the results are found in modern expression as genetically modified substances, synthesized materials, nuclear physics, and other discoveries that have transformed our understanding of Nature, our ways of thinking, our values, and our behaviors. Such ideas and capabilities push our limits, test our strengths and weaknesses, and determine the successes and failures of our societies and our lives.

Let me offer an exhilarating contemporary example, an invention first published in 2017 in the journal SCIENCE and reported thereafter in various publications. And yet, given the implication of the discovery, such press coverage seems insufficient to say the least, as the technology discovered could radically, positively, possibly irrevocably change the world by meeting the challenge of the global water crisis, the effects of over-consumption, climate change, drought, and conflicts that threaten global security — for many today, for everyone tomorrow.

Two teams of scientists from MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, led by Professors Omar Yaghi and Evelyn Yang, have built and demonstrated an appliance “that pulls all the water a household needs out of the air, even in dry or desert climates, using only the power of the sun.”

Crystalline materials similar to these can now harvest water vapor from the air. Credit: Yaghi Laboratory at UC Berkeley

We are aware of this potential and various primitive, inexpensive solutions to gather and conserve water: rainwater off roofs or fog catchers, nets erected to capture condensed water from humid air — actions that serve in some places and instances, but are vulnerable, uncertain, and without much upscale potential. Some have dehumidifiers in their homes — inefficient, power demanding, and useless in low humidity places or without access to costly electricity. This is fundamentally different, and astonishing in its prospect.

According to a UC Berkeley press release, the appliance relies on a new system, on materials called Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) derived some 20 years ago by Dr. Yaghi that combine magnesium or aluminum with organic molecules to create miniature arrangements that form rigid, porous structures ideal for storing gasses and liquids. This technology has found many uses, particularly in petro-chemical processing. In 2014, Yaghi and his UC Berkeley team synthesized a MOF combination of zirconium and adipic acid that binds water vapor. Yaghi suggested to Dr. Wang, a mechanical engineer at MIT, that they join forces to turn the MOF concept into a water-collecting system.

“The water harvester, built at MIT, uses MOFs synthesized at Berkeley to suck water from dry air. The harvester uses sunlight to heat the MOF, driving off the water vapor and condensing it for use.” MIT photo by Hyunho Kim.

And that they did, by compressing MOFs between a solar absorber and a condenser plate, placed in a chamber open to the air, a device that in its first configuration tests showed that one kilogram of material had the potential to collect approximately three quarts of fresh water per day — enough to supply drinking water for one person. All of this from air at 20% humidity and powered at no cost by the sun! There are certainly many advances to be made to bring this to the utility and accessibility required, but, refine this, scale that, and you have a modern day transformation with extraordinary social implications. Says Dr. Yaghi, “our vision is to have water off-grid where you have a device at home running on ambient solar, delivering water the satisfies the needs of the household. I call it personalized water.”

Personalized water. That is what is called for by the World Water Manifesto that established water as a basic human right that must be guaranteed to every person on earth in an amount required for individual survival. In a time when water is becoming industrialized, privatized, and controlled by corporate forces, the availability of water through such technology removes ownership. And it provides a base supply — water from air, an alchemy delivering liquid gold to everyone. This is hydraulic society, and it is all around us.

Modern Alchemy first appeared as a 5-minute audio episode on World Ocean Radio. Host Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Neill is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.