Learning from Nature

Earth day image
Image Credit: Beautiful Earth Day 2018 logo from Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, in Laupahoehoe, HI. 

Happy Earth Day everyone! For this week’s blog, let’s take a look at how resilient Mother Nature is. With every troubling toxin, corrosive chemical and petroleum product we pollute her with, she finds new ways to come back into balance. Here’s what we’ve learned from nature recently:

Oil-eating Bacteria – For decades, scientists have been looking for bacteria and other microorganisms to find the perfect strain which can metabolism hydrocarbons found in oil and petroleum wastes. Researchers at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in France have found a marine bacterium that may be able to do just that. Early research shows that enzymes isolated from Alcanivorax borkumensis have been able to break down many chemicals found in petroleum contaminated soils, including harsh chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar at the Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory stated, “the degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80 percent for various compounds.”  The team intends to extend their work and see if this bacterium is capable of decontaminating waste sites.

Mutant Enzyme that Eats Plastic? – Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been able to “tweak” the structure of an enzyme in a recently discovered bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, to enhance its ability to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is the same material used to manufacture plastic bottles that are clogging up landfills and oceans around the world. Researchers modified the enzyme, called PETase, with additional amino acids. The new enzyme is capable of breaking down PET in just a few days. The hope is the new enzyme may help reduce our world’s escalating plastic crisis.

Plants, Fungi and Bacteria Unite! – Can organisms of different species “talk” to each other?  That may be one way of explaining the “highly complex interactions among roots, fungi and bacteria” which enable some trees to clean polluted land. Bioinformatics and plant-biology experts from McGill University and Université de Montréal discovered new genetic evidence which suggests willow trees, fungi and bacteria symbiotically take care of each other’s physical needs in a petroleum polluted environment. Specifically, willow trees “may tolerate pollution by providing sugars to symbiotic fungi surrounding their roots; the fungi, in turn, provide nutrients to hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.” Scientists are hoping this cross-disciplinary collaboration may lead to the discovery of other “incredibly intricate solutions (to problems) present in the natural world.”

Manipulating Moisture for Mankind?

What’s for dinner? A glass of man-made water and maybe a side of crow.

Last year, I was intrigued by various articles I read involving extracting water from the air and I posted a skeptical blog on my findings. Frankly, I thought the idea was somewhat preposterous, especially when some of the discussions mentioned extracting moisture from desert environments. After all, deserts are deserts precisely because they lack moisture. So how could moisture really be extracted from anything so dry?

Yet, here it is a year later and there’s now credible research that suggests we have the capability of doing just that – generating water from the air in even the most arid environments. Let’s take a look at some new water harvesting systems being developed.

On March 22, 2018, Science Daily reported that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had field tested a new water harvesting technology that “can extract clean drinking water right from the air, even in the driest of deserts.” This method uses metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) as a “high-surface area material” which allowed researchers to extract potable water from the air even when the humidity was as low as 10%, using a device solely powered by sunlight.

These results are very encouraging since most water-from-air devices require much higher humidity levels to operate and also require substantial power for water production. The MIT device was field tested at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, AZ.

On the other side of the globe, Uravu – a technology start-up in Hyderabad, India is developing a residential water vapor collection device which can be placed on home rooftops. This two-part design “uses a proprietary water-absorbing material that sucks vapor from the air and uses solar thermal energy to convert it into water” without the need for electricity or moving parts.

The proprietary hydroscopic material absorbs water vapor overnight and stores it for conversion to liquid water by a solar collector the following day.  The solar collector rapidly heats the water vapor which changes it to a liquid as it cools.

The Uravu prototype produces about 50 liters (~13 gallons) of water per day and the company’s goal is to raise that to 2,000 (~ 530 gallons) liters per day.

Researchers out of Virginia Tech are exploring ways to improve the efficiency of fog harvesters.  The structure they created is called a fog harp. This mechanism is well named since it really looks like a primitive musical harp.  It’s essentially “a vertical array of parallel wires” which catches water vapor suspended in fog as the wind blows over the wires.

fog harp - Virginia Tech
“Study co-author Josh Tulkoff constructs a large prototype of the fog harp, which consists of a vertical array of 700 wires and is based on initial experimental results.” Photo Credit: Virginia Tech. 

 

The fog harp technology is a significant improvement over traditional fog nets which have been employed since the 1980’s in higher humidity areas. By using wires on the fog harp, investigators have been able to collect water vapor that may be lost when using the fog nets. Virginia Tech researchers noted a threefold increase their collection capacity using the fog harp as compared to fog nets.

Fog nets can be very finicky. The conundrum the scientists were looking to solve with the fog nets was really a spacing issue. “If the holes in the (fog net) mesh are too large, water droplets pass through without catching on the net’s wires. If the mesh is too fine, the nets catch more water, but the water droplets clog up the mesh without running down into the trough and wind no longer moves through the nets.” The use of parallel wires has seemingly solved this long perplexing puzzle.

All I can say is what a difference a year makes… any maybe, please pass the salt & pepper.

A Fluid Welcome!

This blog is primarily an educational site about water. I’m a firm believer in what I call “edutainment”.  I want to inspire you with insightful information and ideas and have fun doing it. So many of my posts will be edgy and will hopefully get you to think out outside of the box.

Why water? We often forget how important water is to us. Without it, most of wouldn’t live more than 3-5 days! Something to think about?

There’s lots of areas we’ll be delving into – most having to do with conservation and water awareness. We’ll chat about technical innovations,  politics, industry trends, regional and even global issues…and of course waste water and sewage. Yup – they’re becoming really important as our fresh water resources continue to become depleted around the world.

So stand by as we work our way through the WordPress system to bring you lots of great stuff to ponder and some things which may provoke you.

Thanks for stopping by!

-Sandra Hurlbut