The scientist turning Dune’s ‘water harvesting’ into reality

Atoco CEO says the new material could make the water harvesting
Atoco CEO says the new material could make the water harvesting "we see in Star Wars or Dune a reality". (PA)

Artificial intelligence could help produce drinkable, clean water out of thin air, with the potential to support millions of people giving them access to life's most need.

Since the dawn of civilisation, human settlements have been built around water supplies - but as the population booms and the world warms, access to clean water is becoming an increasing problem. By as early as 2025, half the world’s population could be living in areas facing water scarcity, and more than two billion people already live in areas where water supply is inadequate, according to UNICEF.

Artificial intelligence could offer an answer. While recent technological developments have enabled the desalination of sea water to create "clean" water, the process is expensive and limited to coastal areas. Some scientists have turned to Atmospheric Water Harvesting, instead, using devices such as nets to collect dew or "harvest" water from fog.

More recently, however, an AI-enhanced system using a water-adsorbing compound known as reticular material could draw water from the air, even in arid regions. The inventor of the tech, Atoco, has shown off an eye-catching demonstration where a device was able to draw water from the air in America’s arid, sun-baked Death Valley.

The compound has a huge surface area even within just a gram of MOF-303
The compound has a huge surface area even within just a gram of reticular material

"Even in arid low-humidity regions, there is moisture in the air that we could use for drinking water or irrigation purposes, but harvesting it cost-efficiently requires advanced materials," Dr Samer Taha, CEO at Atoco, tells Yahoo News.

MOF-LA (the 'MOF' stands for metal-organic framework) is a material that is being scaled with the help of AI, and is engineered at the nanoscale with a highly complex atomic structure which helps to "trap" water molecules.

It’s an "adsorbent" (as opposed to ‘absorbent’) which means it traps water on its surface and has been designed to have a huge surface within a tiny area.

Doctor Omar Yaghi of Atoco. (Photo by Don Feria for Atoco)
Doctor Samer Taha, CEO of Atoco. (Photo by Don Feria for Atoco)

Dr Taha explains: "Known as reticular materials, these substances have surface areas the size of football fields within a single gram of material, maximising their ability to trap and release water molecules

"It makes the kind of water harvesting we see in Star Wars or Dune a reality, unlocking access to water in areas suffering from drought or water scarcity."

AI has been crucial to finding new compounds which have the right structure to "capture" water from the air.

Dr Taha says: "Our R&D scientists, in collaboration with scientists at University of California Berkeley, use AI to accelerate this process.

"The scientists used AI assistants as virtual research groups to conduct literature reviews, mining valuable information to guide experiments, or to perform virtual crystallisation experiments, processing experiments in weeks that would take a human team months.

The company hopes to deploy 'water harvesters' within one to two years
The company hopes to deploy 'water harvesters' within one to two years

AI also helps the scientists "home in" on promising new molecular structures, Dr Taha explains.

“In addition to speeding up the process, AI can augment our scientists’ chemical intuition, looking beyond the expected to find new molecular structures," he says. "This means that we can advance and scale up this technology faster than ever before, to tackle water stress in the world’s most challenging environments.”

Current Atmospheric Water Harvesting systems are useful in foggy areas such as mountains or areas with very humid air where there is dew - but can’t be used in arid areas.

Atoco’s system could work in areas where there is very little water in the air, with potential to deliver enough water to sustain life. The company envisions it being used at a village scale, with a tonne of MOF-LA capable of delivering thousands of litres of water for around five or more years.

Atoco hopes to roll out a first generation of ‘water harvester’ devices within the next one to two years.