Nanotube forests drink water from arid air

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David Ruth

Mike Williams

Nanotube forests drink water from arid air

Rice University lab modifies arrays to capture, hold water for later use 

HOUSTON – (June 11, 2014) – If you don’t want to die of thirst in the desert, be like the beetle. Or have a nanotube cup handy.

New research by scientists at Rice University demonstrated that forests of carbon nanotubes can be made to harvest water molecules from arid desert air and store them for future use.

The invention they call a “hygroscopic scaffold” is detailed in a new paper in the American Chemical Society journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Researchers in the lab of Rice materials scientist Pulickel Ajayan found a way to mimic the Stenocara beetle, which survives in the desert by stretching its wings to capture and drink water molecules from the early morning fog.

They modified carbon nanotube forests grown through a process created at Rice, giving the nanotubes a superhydrophobic (water-repelling) bottom and a hydrophilic (water loving) top. The forest attracts water molecules from the air and, because the sides are naturally hydrophobic, traps them inside.

“It doesn’t require any external energy, and it keeps water inside the forest,” said graduate student and first author Sehmus Ozden. “You can squeeze the forest to take the water out and use the material again.”

The forests grown via water-assisted chemical vapor deposition consist of nanotubes that measure only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) across and about a centimeter long.

The Rice team led by Ozden deposited a superhydrophobic layer to the top of the forest and then removed the forest from its silicon base, flipped it and added a layer of hydrophilic polymer to the other side.

In tests, water molecules bonded to the hydrophilic top and penetrated the forest through capillary action and gravity. (Air inside the forest is compressed rather then expelled, the researchers assumed.) Once a little water bonds to the forest canopy, the effect multiplies as the molecules are drawn inside, spreading out over the nanotubes through van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding and dipole interactions. The molecules then draw more water in.

The researchers tested several variants of their cup. With only the top hydrophilic layer, the forests fell apart when exposed to humid air because the untreated bottom lacked the polymer links that held the top together. With a hydrophilic top and bottom, the forest held together but water ran right through.

But with a hydrophobic bottom and hydrophilic top, the forest remained intact even after collecting 80 percent of its weight in water.

The amount of water vapor captured depends on the air’s humidity. An 8 milligram sample (with a 0.25-square-centimeter surface) pulled in 27.4 percent of its weight over 11 hours in dry air, and 80 percent over 13 hours in humid air. Further tests showed the forests significantly slowed evaporation of the trapped water.

If it becomes possible to grow nanotube forests on a large scale, the invention could become an efficient, effective water-collection device because it does not require an external energy source, the researchers said.

Ozden said the production of carbon nanotube arrays at a scale necessary to put the invention to practical use remains a bottleneck. “If it becomes possible to make large-scale nanotube forests, it will be a very easy material to make,” he said.

Co-authors are postdoctoral researcher Liehui Ge, graduate student Amelia Hart and senior faculty fellow Robert Vajtai, all of Rice; Rice alumnus Tharangattu Narayanan, a scientist at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute, Karaikudi, India; Hyunseung Yang, a graduate student at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology and former visiting scholar at Rice; and Srividya Sridhar, a graduate student at Delhi Technological University, India, and visiting scholar at Rice. Ajayan is Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and of chemistry, and chair of the Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.

The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative supported the research.


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A hygroscopic scaffold created at Rice University is a modified forest of carbon nanotubes that have the ability to harvest water molecules from the air. The water is stored until released either by squeezing the reusable scaffold or until it slowly evaporates back into the atmosphere. (Credit: Ajayan Group/Rice University)


A sample of hygroscopic scaffold made from a forest of carbon nanotubes at Rice University collects and stores water molecules from even arid air. The molecules sink into the forest from the top down, filling up to 80 percent of the scaffold in humid conditions (left), and less in temperate (center) and dry (right) conditions. (Credit: Ajayan Group/Rice University)

Electron microscope images show the superhydrophobic (water-repelling) side (left) of a hygroscopic scaffold created at Rice University. The image at right shows the hydrophilic (water-loving) side. (Courtesy of the Ajayan Group/Rice University)


Rice University graduate student Sehmus Ozden holds a carbon nanotube forest. Ozden treated nanotube arrays to harvest water in the same way beetles do in the desert, by combining hydrophilic and hydrophobic surfaces. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)


A treated forest of nanotubes can harvest water from arid air, according to researchers at Rice University. The small block, which contains millions of carbon nanotubes, can be altered with hydrophilic and hydrophobic polymers that turn it into a cup that attracts and contains water molecules until they are needed. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University) 

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,920 undergraduates and 2,567 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6.3-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice has been ranked No. 1 for best quality of life multiple times by the Princeton Review and No. 2 for “best value” among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go here.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.