Space & Innovation

Turning Fog into Beer in World's Driest Desert

Chile's Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on the planet -- can fog harvesting supply the water (and, indeed, beer) needs for the most arid of communities?

Every morning at dawn, a thick mist known as "The Darkness" blows in from the Pacific to the edge of the Atacama Desert, the most arid place in the world.

After tantalizing the northern Chilean desert with the promise of moisture, the mist evaporates in the sun, leaving the heat to bake the stark lunar landscape.

But the South American country is researching how to use a technique called "fog harvesting" to collect this mist in large quantities and deliver it to communities that currently depend on water shipped in from the city in tanker trucks.

PHOTOS: ALMA: New Jewel of the Atacama Desert

Chilean researchers have patented a device resembling a large window screen to turn the mist into usable water.

These fog harvesters are set up facing the wind, which blows the mist into myriad tiny black threads that crisscross them.

Instead of passing through, the mist condenses on the polypropylene threads, slowly gathering into drops that eventually seep down into an awaiting container.

The technique is basic but efficient: each window-sized device can collect 14 liters (3.7 gallons) of water a day, said Camilo Del Rio, a researcher at the geography institute of Catholic University in Santiago.

The university runs a research center on fog harvesting in the northern city of Alto Patache.

The technology has been exported to Spain, Nepal, Namibia and several other Latin American nations. Other countries collect water with the same principle, but using trees to gather the condensed moisture.

VIDEO: Amazing Time Lapse of Atacama's Star-Filled Sky

The water tastes like rain, but must be treated for drinking because it contains minerals from the ocean and can harbor bacteria.

"Transforming it into potable water isn't complicated or expensive," and it can be used as is for bathing or irrigation, said Del Rio.

Old Idea The research center in Alto Patache comprises six white domes with a weather station, a kitchen, bedrooms and bathrooms -- all of which run completely on harvested fog, which provides the facility with more than 200 liters of water a day on average.

The first fog harvester was installed in the desert in 1992. Around 150 have been deployed since then, though only 40 or so are currently in operation.

The Atacama Desert's dawn mist is produced by the intense solar radiation that hits the nearby Pacific, evaporating large volumes of water that is then carried inland by the region's strong winds.

When this moist air mass reaches the snowy peaks of the Andes mountains west of the desert, it cools and turns to a thick mist.

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The indigenous people native to the region call the mist "Camanchaca," which means "The Darkness" in the Aymara language.

Using it for water is an old idea.

The Aymara have long collected condensed mist as it dripped from the rocks.

Today, researchers say, fog harvesting could enable entire communities in Chile's parched northern reaches to be self-sufficient for water, despite the near-total absence of rain.

Misty Beer "This mist is a blessing," said Del Rio.

"We live in an extremely arid, desert climate... but we have this moisture from the ocean."

The lone drawback? Inconsistency. The amount of water collected by a single fog harvester can range from 14 liters a day or more in winter to zero in the summertime.

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The average is around seven liters a day across the year.

Researchers are looking for ways to store the water and make the supply more predictable for residents.

"The challenge in studying the mist is to find ways to transport it and bring it to the communities," said Nicolas Zanetta, who runs the research center.

"There are small villages that have no potable water and have to constantly be supplied by tanker trucks from the city... In the future, the idea is to try to implement systems like this across the region."

Chile has already made a start.

In the Coquimbo region, 2,000 residents rely on fog harvesting for their water supply and there is even a local beer made with condensed droplets of mist.

Fog hangs over the Atacama Desert below the ESO's La Silla Observatory.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array, or ALMA, is nearing completion after over 30 years of planning and collaborating among astronomers and engineers from several nations. The completed array will consist of 66 antennas and two supercomputers, called correlators, at the backend to collect the signals and make the array function as one large telescope.

On March 12th and 13th, 2013, over a hundred journalists descended upon the array along with politicians, scientists, engineers, and other VIPs to celebrate the official inauguration of the array and tour its facilities. I was there along with 11 other journalists from around North America as guests of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Overview of the telescope's technical capabilities, science goals, and history were given by (from left to right) Michael Thorburn, Head of the ALMA Department of Engineering, Pierre Cox, incoming ALMA director, Thijs de Graauw, current ALMA director, Al Wootten, ALMA Program Scientist for North America, and Ewine van Dishoeck, Professor at Leiden University and former ALMA board member.

The ALMA control room is the hub of activity at the "low site" or Operations Support Facility. From here, telescope operators manage and control all array operations and conduct observing runs. Astronomers who win time on the telescope through a merit-based proposal process do not actually travel to the site or control the telescope in real time. Instead, as with other radio interferometers, they prepare observing scripts based on what science they want to achieve, and their scripts are then scheduled and run by ALMA staff. The data is then made available to the astronomer for a proprietary period of one year, when it is then released to the public.

Everyone gets into the spirit of ALMA, which in Spanish actually means "soul," as an art contest was held for local children. Featured here are some of the submissions and several winners in the six to nine year old group.

54 of the final 66 antennas were at the "high site" or Array Operations Site, at an altitude of 16,500 feet. The 12-meter dishes are contributed by partners in Europe, North America, and East Asia, whereas several smaller, 7-meter dishes from East Asia make up a compact array in the center. The completed array will eventually have the capability of expansion by moving the antennas to different concrete "pads" spread around the Chajnantor Plateau. With a baseline, or distance between antennas, of up to 14 kilometers, ALMA will be able to obtain resolution ten times better than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Reporters were allowed a peek at the massive correlator behind glass in the second highest building in the world. The correlator is the computer that brings together signals from all the antennas so that the astronomer can make an image using the full array. We received a thorough explanation of its working from correlator engineer Alejandro Saez who has spent time constructing in in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at the high site in Chile. The correlator has the processing power of 3 million laptops as it has to make calculations for up to 1,125 antenna pairs billions of times per second.

The antennas actually put on a show for us during our three hour tour of the high site, slewing, or moving, back and forth. These antennas are built for perfection, or as close to it as one can come. These sturdy, yet flexible machines must maintain a dish surface accuracy of the width of a human hair and pivot back and forth between a target source and calibrator source on the sky every ten seconds.

Taking a hundred or so journalists to a site at 16,500 feet (5000 meters) altitude is quite risky business. Everyone must pass a basic fitness exam to be cleared for access, though employees must endure a much more rigorous process involving a stress test and heart monitoring to work on site. A team of diligent paramedics were there to hand out oxygen bottles and check for signs of altitude sickness. Here, I got my pulse checked in an ambulance after running around like an excited child a bit too much.

The "front end" of a radio telescope is the place where radio light that is collected by the dish is received, amplified, and transferred to the next stage for digital processing. The large blue drum is a cryostat and holds the most sensitive electronics in the telescope at a cold 4 Kelvin using liquid helium. The silver circles are the actual windows into the feedhorms, the first stage where radio light passes into the front end. Don't think those metal plates are transparent? They are to the radio light that ALMA receives.

Just one of ten sets of electronics that can fit inside those blue drums are on display here. Various stages of the system are cooled to difference temperatures, and engineers needs to wear special gloves and shirts when handling these so that they do not impart a spark of static electricity that could ruin a sensitive (and expensive) piece of equipment. The superconducting receivers used by ALMA are state-of-the-art and were developed specifically for this purpose.

How do you move a giant antenna? You build a giant antenna mover. The on-site guests were treated to an amazing site when one of the two antenna crawlers rumbled down a huge dirt road to pick up one of the dishes that is still under testing. Otto and Lore, as the crawlers are named, have to pick up each 100-ton antenna and place them down on their pads with millimeter accuracy. They move the antennas from the Operations Support Facility up to the high site and back and will be used to change array configurations to change the telescopes resolving power.