Once again it is biomimicry, the art of taking inspiration from nature to solve human problems, which brings us a revolutionary discovery. In a world where drinking water is increasingly a precious commodity, science has asked for help... from cobwebs (and this time not to make music).
These intricate natural designs, capable of capturing the morning dew, have inspired a team of visionary researchers. The result? An artificial spider web that could transform atmospheric humidity into an inexhaustible source of drinking water.
Inspiration from nature
Nature has always had ingenious solutions to problems that humanity is only beginning to understand. Let's take, as mentioned, the simple cobwebs. Many of us see them as works of natural art (or a nuisance when it comes to cleaning the house): researchers at Beihang University in China saw a great opportunity.
Yongmei Zheng and his team have designed special man-made microfibers that, like spider webs, can collect water from the air. In places where clean water is scarce it could be a giant leap forward. The study, published in advanced functional materials, I link it here.
How do artificial spider webs work?
The process behind these microfibers is fascinating. The core of artificial spider webs is a plastic microfiber coated with a layer of hydrophilic titanium dioxide. This creates protuberances on the fiber, protuberances that with the application of high temperatures are transformed into very small spirals that cover the fiber.
The spiral shape not only increases the surface area for water to collect, but also forms stronger bonds with the droplets, holding them better. How much better? Very, very much. Every bump it can hold 2000 times its amount in water.
A device for the future
Based on this discovery, Zheng and his team created a device, only 6 square centimeters in size, that can collect about 0,1 liters of water per day in a foggy environment. But, as the old saying goes, "big oaks grow from small acorns." If this device were one square meter large it could produce enough drinking water for one person in one day. And without electricity.
Not to mention the fact that these artificial spider webs have another trick up their sleeve. While other devices of this type see their ability to collect water decrease over time, these new webs can self-heal. When exposed to ultraviolet light, they react with water molecules, retaining their hydrophilic properties.
Artificial cobwebs, a sip of optimism
In a world where Petrarch's "clear, fresh and sweet waters" seem increasingly distant and inaccessible, these man-made cobwebs give us hope and comfort. These artificial cobwebs offer us a vision of a future in which drinking water is no longer a luxury, but a right accessible to all.