Scientific Accident Could Give Us New Powers Over Water
Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory mistakenly created a material with unusual abilities to take on or expel water that could change the way we stay dry or quench our thirst in the future.
The team was trying to fabricate magnetic nanowires but was instead left with carbon-rich nanorods that seemed to be counterintuitively shedding water as humidity increased. When they looked closer at the phenomenon under a high-powered microscope, they were able to see liquid accumulated in tiny spaces on the nanorods spontaneously evaporating.
“Our unusual material behaves a bit like a sponge; it wrings itself out halfway before it’s fully saturated with water,” explained PNNL researcher David Lao, who manufactured the material.
They also found that the process is reversible and that the material took on water as humidity in the ambient surroundings decreased. The team was hard-pressed to think of any other material that takes on water at low humidity and expels it at high humidity, but it did seem to validate a process that was theorized as far back as the 1990s.
The findings and their potential future uses are laid out in a paper in the latest issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Possible uses include systems that could literally collect drinking water from thin air in deserts and underserved areas. We can also imagine fabrics that are essentially self-wringing when they get wet by spontaneously releasing liquids into the air as a vapor.
“But before we can put these nanorods to good use, we need to be able to control and perfect their size and shape,” added Satish Nune, the paper’s other corresponding author.
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