New tech created by SwRI scientists might change how we get water

What if we could pull water right out of the air and use it to flush our toilets, water our lawns, and even drink? Researchers from the Southwest Research Institute think they’ve found a way to make that possible.

Scientists from the San Antonio-based applied research and development organization have built a low-cost mechanism they say is capable of harvesting water straight from the air on a scale larger than ever attempted. SwRI engineers and chemists have constructed a miniaturized prototype version of a machine for testing that utilizes silica gel beads — like the ones you might find controlling moisture in a package of beef jerky or in a new pair of shoes — to capture water from the air around it.

“There is always water vapor in the air around us,” said Program Manager Kevin Supak in a press release. “If you’re enjoying a cold beverage on a humid day, you’ll see condensation gathering on the glass. We can capture that moisture and turn it into a resource.”

As of 2021, more than 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries, according to the United Nations. With the world facing a water crisis, finding alternative methods of collecting water is crucial, Supak told the San Antonio Report. Possible applications for the technology include military use in remote locations where water isn’t available, as well as humanitarian relief for people living in drought conditions or areas where the water is unsafe to drink.

While the air around us may seem arid — with even our skin seeming dry to the touch — most air has about 30% to 60% humidity at all times, Supak said. Warm air can hold even more moisture, and even desert air has some moisture in it, he added. 

The machine, which was constructed using $300,000 of internal SwRI research funding, has several components that make it especially easy and inexpensive to assemble, research engineer Swanand Bhagwat said.

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