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Beetle from Namib Desert inspires a new material, which can make water from thin air

When people start talking about finite resources of our planet no one is thinking about water. However, with current environmental situation, water supplies may soon become a major problem. This is why we must find ways to get pure water literally from thin air. Now scientists from the University of Sydney developed a new material, which could capture water from moist air.

Special bumps on the back of the Physosterna cribripes can capture water from the moist air, which is then consumed by the beetle. Image credit: Tracy Robb via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0

This material, inspired by a beetle native to the Namib Desert, has a potential of producing water for agricultural purposes and even drinking. Scientists say that this special coating can be used in various equipment, which could be used during drought or some other extreme situation when water is scarce. The beetle, which inspired this invention, is Physosterna cribripes. It has hydrophilic bumps on its back embedded in a waxy and hydrophobic surface. This beetle can capture water from moist air and then drink these tiny droplets. It looks almost like a natural superpower, so there is no surprise that scientists were interested enough to try and replicate this property.

Scientists wanted their material to be relatively cheap to manufacture and available for scaling up. They used the spontaneous formation of micropatterns in thin polymer films from nanoscale intermolecular forces that lead to the instability. Associate Professor Chiara Neto, leader of the research team, said: “we have refined our pattern formation approach using specific solvents for the polymer molecules in use, and made the approach even more amenable to large scale use”. What they created is very impressive – material can collect water droplets without any energy input.

One can wonder – how is this invention, if even a simple plastic sheet collects dew at night? The material that scientists developed can collect 57 % more water in volume than a simple plastic sheet and works as well in worse conditions, such as in low humidity. This difference is quite big, having in mind that every drop counts when there is drought. The next step for the research is to create some prototypes of useful devices, which could be used during drought to produce water for drinking and irrigation.

It is not the first time scientists take inspiration from nature. With climate change taking place we may be facing more fierce droughts in the near future. So it is good that there are still beetles that can teach us a thing or two about water conservation.

Source: sydney.edu.au

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