Moisture Harvesting: Pulling Water Out of Thin Air

For human civilization to survive, people must have access to the three basics: Food, water and shelter. Advanced building materials have evolved over millennia to take care of the shelter part. In recent years, however, new breakthroughs in materials science have made it possible for our shelter materials to provide a limited amount of clean drinking water as well.

Here are three new applications — one conceptual, one an art project and one already in place — that demonstrate the potential for buildings of the future to pull water literally out of thin air, proving that, even in a desert community, life-giving moisture can be found in unexpected places.

Drinking Water Billboard — Lima, Perú

A boy enjoys a drink of filtered water harvested from the billboard behind him. Image via UTEC.

A boy enjoys a drink of filtered water harvested from the billboard behind him. Image via UTEC.

Perú’s capital city, Lima, is on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, which keeps the coastal air sopping wet, with 90 percent relative humidity for most of the year. Yet, due to a quirk of geography, the 8.5 million residents of Lima are located within one of the driest regions on Earth, receiving less than an inch of rain each year. Groundwater sources are overtapped and critically low, so some engineers at the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) have worked on some clever ways to convert the moist air into drinking water.

A boy enjoys a drink of filtered water harvested from the billboard behind him. Image via UTEC.

A spigot at the base of the billboard tower dispenses the water directly to those who need it. Image via UTEC.

Their demonstration project, oddly enough, is a conventional highway advertising billboard. UTEC researchers, working with ad agency and billboard owner, Mayo DraftFCB, installed a condenser, a reverse osmosis filter, an activated-carbon filter and storage tanks to pull moisture out of the air as it flows past the board.

In its first three months, the billboard produced roughly 2,600 gallons of clean, drinkable water, which is accessible for the people of Lima’s Bujama District via a spigot at the base of the tower. UTEC hopes the project can be replicated in dozens of other sites in the region where water is scarce. The blight of corporate advertising has never looked so attractive.

Mist Tree Tower Concept—Atacama Desert, Chile

In the Mist Tree Tower concept, a giant mesh resembling a tree root would capture moisture from coastal fog. Image via eVolo Skyscraper Contest.

In the Mist Tree Tower concept, a giant mesh resembling a tree root would capture moisture from coastal fog. Image via eVolo Skyscraper Contest.

Taking the Lima idea to a much larger scale, American architecture students Yeonkyu Park, Kwon Han, Hyeyeon Kwon, and Hojeong Lim submitted a proposal to bring coastal fog from the west coast of Chile and drawing it through a mountain chain to inland regions of the parched Atacama Desert.

A cross-section of the concept shows how water would be drawn underground to the drier side of the mountains. Image via eVolo Skyscraper Contest.

A cross-section of the concept shows how water would be drawn underground to the drier side of the mountains. Image via eVolo Skyscraper Contest.

Their Mist Tree Tower design, which won an honorable mention in this year’s eVolo Skyscraper Competition, include a series of giant circular mesh openings embedded in the cooler, more humid western side of the Andes Mountains. The mesh would capture the “Camanchaca,” the local name for the thick fog than hangs along the Pacific Coast but is blocked by the mountains.

Randy Woods is a Seattle-based writer and editor with 20+ years of experience in the business publishing world. A former managing editor of Seattle Business, iSixSigma, Claims and Waste Age magazines, he has covered topics that include newspaper publishing, entrepreneurism, green businesses, insurance, environmental protection and garbage hauling (yes, really). He also contributes to the Career Center Blog for The Seattle Times and edits a photography magazine called PhotoMedia. When not working, he likes to hide out in Seattle movie theaters and attend film festivals—even on sunny days.

Be first to comment