Beetle bumps help scientists harvest water from air

"This research is an exciting first step towards developing a passive system that can efficiently collect water and guide it to a reservoir," said researcher Philseok Kim.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 25, 2016 at 11:47 AM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb. 25 (UPI) -- In an effort to pull water from the air, researchers at Harvard are looking to an African insect.

The Namib Desert beetle uses a pattern of bumps to funnel condensed water droplets from its shell to its mouth. It's an adaptation that allows the beetle to survive in one of the driest regions on Earth, and it's one scientists are trying to scale for industrial purposes.

The beetle is not the only source of inspiration. In a recent study, researchers managed to marry the beetle's water collection abilities with those of cacti and pitcher plants.

"So far, we tend to mimic one inspirational natural system at a time," researcher Joanna Aizenberg, a professor of material sciences at Harvard, said in a press release. "Our research shows that a complex bio-inspired approach, in which we marry multiple biological species to come up with non-trivial designs for highly efficient materials with unprecedented properties, is a new, promising direction in biomimetics."

Aizenberg and her colleagues found that the bumps of the Namib Desert beetle are ideal for coaxing water condensation, while the asymmetrical V-shaped pattern of cactus spines offers superior funneling. Researchers then combined these advantages with a slippery, friction-free material inspired by pitcher plants to build a complete water-collection system.

The new technology is described in the journal Nature.

"We experimentally found that the geometry of bumps alone could facilitate condensation," said first study author Kyoo-Chul Park, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard.

"By optimizing that bump shape through detailed theoretical modeling and combining it with the asymmetry of cactus spines and the nearly friction-free coatings of pitcher plants," Park explained, "we were able to design a material that can collect and transport a greater volume of water in a short time compared to other surfaces."

Without any one of the three nature-inspired components, the system would be incomplete.

In addition to harvesting water, the technology could be used to bolster industrial heat exchangers.

"Thermal power plants, for example, rely on condensers to quickly convert steam to liquid water," said study co-author Philseok Kim.

"This research is an exciting first step towards developing a passive system that can efficiently collect water and guide it to a reservoir," added Kim.

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