A system, based on relatively new high-surface-area materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), can extract potable water from even the driest of desert air, the researchers say, with relative humidities as low as 10 percent. Current methods for extracting water from air require much higher levels – 100 percent humidity for fog-harvesting methods, and above 50 percent for dew-harvesting refrigeration-based systems, which also require large amounts of energy for cooling. So the new system could potentially fill an unmet need for water even in the world’s driest regions.

By running a test device on a rooftop at Arizona State University in Tempe, Wang says, the team “was field-testing in a place that’s representative of these arid areas, and showed that we can actually harvest the water, even in subzero dewpoints.”

The test device was powered solely by sunlight, and although it was a small proof-of-concept device, if scaled up its output would be equivalent to more than a quarter-liter of water per day per kilogram of MOF, the researchers say. With an optimal material choice, output can be as high as three times that of the current version, says Kim. Unlike any of the existing methods for extracting water from air at very low humidities, “with this approach, you actually can do it, even under these extreme conditions,” Wang says.

The next step, Wang says, is to work on scaling up the system and boosting its efficiency. “We hope to have a system that’s able to produce liters of water.” These small, initial test systems were only designed to produce a few milliliters, to prove the concept worked in real-world conditions, but she says “we want to see water pouring out!” The idea would be to produce units sufficient to supply water for individual households.