Two unintentional lab discoveries could give people living in remote areas easier access to drinking water.
The discoveries come from researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who by a fluke created carbon-rich nanorods. That was the first discovery.
Before ditching the whole experiment, chemist Satish Nune decided to inspect the nanorods with a vapor analysis instrument. That's when he made the second discovery. The nanorods seemed to be losing weight as the humidity increased. Normally when materials absorb water they gain weight.
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Thinking there was an error, the team tried a different instrument but found the same strange phenomenon. They reported their research in this week's Nature Nanotechnology.
Under a high-powered microscope, PNNL research associate David Lao could even see the nanorods oozing droplets as the humidity increased.
"Our unusual material behaves a bit like a sponge; it wrings itself out halfway before it's fully saturated with water," Lao said in a press statement.
The scientists pretty quickly realized there were a couple of great applications for such a material.
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For example, the nanorods could be used in a system that harvests water vapor from the air for drinking water or irrigation.
The nanomaterial could also be incorporated into sportswear -- shirts, jackets and pants -- that wick away sweat and emit it as water vapor.
Such a system could be used in remote deserts, where it would collect water from the air and harvest it for human consumption.
"But before we can put these nanorods to good use, we need to be able to control and perfect their size and shape," Nune said in a press statement.
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They also need to scale up the amount of material and the percentage of nanorods that expel water. At the moment, only about 10 to 20 percent of the materials achieves that feat.
What started as an accident could result in a material that improves the quality of human life, and the scientists have every intent on making it so.
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