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Can a Sportsman's Dream Inspire a Solution for Humanity's Most Pressing Problem – Access to Drinking Water?

In 2005 I participated in Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 251 km ultra-marathon, which is the equivalent of six regular marathons. This multiday race is held every year in southern Morocco, in the Sahara desert, and it is considered the toughest running race on Earth.

They say you often have your big ideas and “aha moments” when you are not sitting at a desk and focusing on the problem—in this case it was true. This experience pushed me to the limit and in doing so became an unusual source for innovation. During the marathon I was thinking how great it would be to have something like a self-filling bottle of water. With this I would never run out of water even in one of the most arid places on earth. What a dream!

Of course, for many people on this planet such an invention is a necessity and not just a sportsman’s dream. Millions lack access to drinking water, not only in deserts but also in the many arid areas on this planet. People spend a lot of time searching for water and transporting it back home. A self-filling water bottle would definitely help to decrease this time allocation, allowing them to utilize their time in more efficient ways. This challenge got me thinking and when I started looking into this idea, I discovered some outstanding inroads in the field of innovation.

I was amazed when I realized a startup business, Boston’s NBD Nanotechnologies, was indeed developing a self-filling water bottle. It collects moisture from the atmosphere to create condensation. The idea is borrowed from the Namib Desert beetle; in fact, “NBD” stands for Namib Beetle Design. The beetle (Onymacris unguicularis), endemic to Africa’s Namib Desert, with only 1.3 cm of rainfall a year, has inspired the academic community already in the past, but this is the first time a self-filling water bottle has been proposed. The beetle collects the condensation from the ocean breeze on the hardened shell of its wings. The shell is covered with tiny bumps, hydrophilic at their tips and hydrophobic at their sides. The beetle extends and aims the wings at incoming sea breezes to catch droplets 15 to 20 microns in diameter, which eventually accumulate on its back and run straight down towards its mouth.

In past studies, researchers constructed structurally superior synthetic copies of the shell. An earlier incarnation of the material was first constructed in 2006 by an MIT team. They dipped glass or plastic substrates into solutions of charged polymer chains over and over again to manipulate the surface makeup. Silica nanoparticles were then added to create a rougher, water-trapping texture, and a Teflon-like substance sealed it. Charged polymers and nanoparticles were then layered in patterns to create a contrast between rough and porous surfaces.

Using this technology NBD has achieved proof of concept with its bottle design. As incredible as it may sound, the bottle can collect between half a liter to three liters of water per hour, depending on the local environment. It is, however, still a long way from becoming a usable or commercial product. The price of the material and the production costs are still a question, and the exact bottle design is not clear yet. But the concept has gained recognition.

Based on their work on the product so far, NBD was selected as a finalist in the Imagine H2O Consumer Innovation program. Imagine H2O is a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire and empower people to solve water problems. Its vision is to turn water challenges into opportunities. Its program supports water efficiency and quality innovations in the residential and point-of-use markets.

The technology perfectly fits with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, more specifically the “Target 7C.” The Millennium Development Goals are eight international development goals established at the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000. All 189 United Nations member states at the time and 23 international organizations committed to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. There are eight goals with 21 targets, and a series of measurable health indicators and economic indicators for each target. Target 7C is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water. Now, if NBD technology provides several liters of water per day in a cost-effective manner, it may help communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and other arid regions of the world.

Even in the past, finding a way to get water from air was very popular. An “air well” or “aerial well” was a structure or device that collected water by promoting the condensation of moisture from air. Many designs for air wells were invented, the simplest of which are passive with no external energy source and with few, if any, moving parts.

There were three principal designs used for air wells: high-mass, radiative and active. High-mass air wells were used in the early 20th century, but the approach failed. From the late 20th century onwards, low-mass, radiative collectors proved to be more successful. Active collectors collect water in the same way as a dehumidifier. Although the designs work well, they require an energy source, making them uneconomical except in special circumstances. New, innovative designs for active collectors seek to minimize the energy requirements or make use of renewable energy resources.

A self-filling water bottle design is an excellent example of how nature can help us to find and discover ideas for innovations. For humans, water-conserving mechanisms extend a habitable range. Fabricating a physical catalyst that manipulates water on a molecular level and materializes it in bulk before our eyes would be impressive. In actuality, waiting to satisfy people’s thirst with such a bottle would probably be more like waiting for seedlings planted at home to grow into a hedge. At the same time, water remains one of the largest issues in today’s world and these innovations serve as a positive step to perhaps a new reality.