Pulling water from thin air

Recycling water is one way to unlock more freshwater – but what if we could just absorb water out of the air? That’s the goal of a new water extraction device developed with the help of Laura Gagliardi, Richard and Kathy Leventhal Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering.

A theoretical chemist at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, Gagliardi is an expert in modeling chemical phenomena with complex computer simulations. For many years, she has worked with collaborators around the world to study metal-organic frameworks or MOFs – materials whose molecular structure gives them a porous internal surface area. That internal surface that can be functionalized to absorb high amounts of gas, or, in this case, collect water from the air.

“They are essentially sponges,” Gagliardi said. “But we needed to understand exactly how they work at the atomic level to make such a device work even better.”

That’s where she and her team found opportunity, using theoretical and computational methods to understand how water molecules attach inside the MOFs. The goal is to use the device in dry areas, such as a desert, where water is scarce, but Gagliardi envisions an even broader use.

“We envision a device like this for every human, essentially a water bottle that can always absorb water out of the air,” she said. “That way, wherever anyone is, they always have access to clean water.”

The team is currently working to optimize the device, and Gagliardi and her team are examining other classes of materials that could potentially make the MOF device even more effective.

“Society is facing incredible challenges with water,” Gagliardi said. “The planet will be water-restrained in many areas, and we as scientists and engineers at Pritzker Molecular Engineering can help solve these critical issues. Because we have so many different areas of expertise, PME is the ideal environment to perform this research. We can address these problems from multiple angles to find solutions.”