AUSTIN, Texas — Access to clean water remains one of the biggest challenges facing people across the globe, but a breakthrough by engineers at The University of Texas at Austin may offer a new solution.

  • Technology relies on "super sponges"
  • Could be used in disaster situations
  • Also possible for poverty-stricken areas

Researchers are developing solar-powered technology that absorbs moisture from the air and returns it as clean, usable water.

The new advancement, which was described in a recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials, could be used in disaster situations, water crises or poverty-stricken areas and developing countries. The technology relies on hydrogels, materials designed to be “super sponges” that can retain large amounts of water.

The team of researchers in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering, combined hydrogels that are both highly water absorbent and can release water upon heating. The unique combination has been successfully proven to work in humid and dry weather conditions. With an estimated 50,000 cubic kilometers of water contained in the atmosphere, the new system could possibly lead to small, inexpensive and portable filtration systems.

The new technology builds upon an advancement in 2018 in which the same researchers developed a solar-powered water purification innovation using hydrogels that cleaned water from any source using only solar energy. The team’s new innovation takes that work a step further by using the water that already exists in the atmosphere.

While it may seem futuristic, water-harvesting is not a new concept. Most refrigerators keep things cool through a vapor condensation process. However, the common refrigerator requires lots of energy to perform that action. The UT team’s technology requires only solar power, is compact and can still produce enough water to meet the daily needs of an average household.