Attention, Star Wars trivia buffs. In the iconic original movie, circa 1977, what did Luke Skywalker’s family do to make a living on the remote, desert planet of Tattooine?
OK, time’s up.
The answer is, they were moisture farmers. They drew moisture from the dry air to provide drinking water, using devices known as “vaporators.”
That, of course, was science fiction. Forty-four years later, the University of South Alabama is involved in making the science real.
“[Skywalker’s] family farmed water from the atmosphere,” said T. Grant Glover, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at USA.
“That’s basically what we’re doing right now. It’s no longer science fiction.”
Glover is working with colleagues at the University of California Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and GE Research on the project to draw potable — drinkable — water from air in places and situations where dehumidifying or purifying existing sources won’t work. The team has a $14.3 million grant through General Electric Research from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The initial use would be military. A portable device would provide water for troops working and living in especially arid parts of the world, troops otherwise dependent on water being brought in, Glover said. Transporting water by the truckload comes with fuel costs, other expenses and security issues as well.
“I didn’t appreciate how complicated military water logistics are until I started working on this project,” Glover said. Water is heavy and inconvenient to move, whether it’s in plastic bottles, on pallets or on trucks.
But beyond defense, the technology carries global humanitarian implications. Natural disasters such as hurricanes and the winter storms in Texas can knock out water supplies. Droughts affect people, crops and livestock, and can contribute to wildfires. In some countries, obtaining water can be a matter of survival.
Collaboration has been crucial, and it’s what drew South Alabama into the research group with the two prestigious universities.
Prof. Omar M. Yaghi at UC Berkeley invented Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs), the material on which the process takes place, and originated the concept of harvesting water from a MOF. Prof. Laura Gagliardi, at the University of Chicago, is an expert in molecular modeling, which is intended to model or mimic the behavior of molecules. And Glover, who did a post-doctorate fellowship with Yaghi, is an expert in gas separation and adsorption. Adsorption, not to be confused with absorption, is the capability of solid substances to attract to their surfaces molecules of gases or solutions with which they are in contact.
Technology integration and systems development comes from David Moore of GE Research.
So how does the technology work?
“This device performs in conditions where there is no other commercial device that will behave similarly,” Glover said. “A dehumidifier won’t work and there’s no liquid water stream to fill your self-purifying canteen. So, you’re left with no water at all.”
The material invented by Yaghi is intended to separate out the water molecules to create purified water.
“As you push air across the material, the water molecules in the air interact more strongly than the nitrogen and the oxygen in the air,” Glover said. “Once you have it on the material, you heat it up a little bit and it releases the water, and you can condense it for drinking.”
To test an earlier prototype, Yaghi needed an extremely dry location, and selected the Mojave Desert.
“We built this small device, and we brought it out to the Mojave Desert — which is one of driest spots in the whole world actually — and we were able to collect 1.3 liters of water.”
So, the concept works. The current project runs for two years with the goal of converting the technology to practical use.
Taking water from air requires, first of all, a lot of air. How much air is one question. How much water can be extracted from a certain amount of air? How much MOF is needed to produce how much water?
GE Research will build a prototype based on the materials, models and data provided by the scientific team. The project team’s goal is to fabricate a device that can produce enough water daily for 150 people, but is small enough that four people can lift it.
The project funding is for the first two years of research. The federal government has the option to provide funding for two more years of development, Glover said. He said he can’t project when an air-to-water device might be ready for field use.
“There’s a lot of interest in this project across a whole number of agencies,” he said.
And all of that interest can only enhance the scientific research reputation of the University of South Alabama.
“South is a young institution relative to Berkeley, so I think it shows a lot of good forward progress in the research structure at the university,” Glover said. “We’re making meaningful contributions on a project where it counts, a project that has really broad impacts.”
Jane Nicholes and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in south Alabama. Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited.