Innovation That Matters

The synthetic tree mimics the mangrove | Photo source Aldino Hartan Putra on Unsplash

Synthetic tree purifies water using mangrove inspired design

Science

The design process is based on transpiration, a process found in nature by which trees pump up water through their trunks

Spotted:  Whilst so far Solar stills have efficiently made drinking water available from unclean or salty sources, engineers at Virginia Tech have come up with an improved method. The engineers at Virginia Tech have created a tree-like solar still for water purification, that simulates the natural process of water moving up via roots and stems into leaves. Inspired by mangroves, the design takes on the form of a “synthetic tree”. 

Unlike the majority of current devices, which rely on capillary action (in which liquid adheres to the borders of a small area and drags other molecules upwards due to the liquid’s internal cohesion) and do not scale very well, the new design is based on “transpiration”. 

Through transpiration, plants can effectively absorb water from their roots and transport it through their trunks until their branches. The mechanism relies on a suction effect, which is pulled up by the decreased water potential in the air surrounding the plant. The water is then expelled through the leaves through vaporisation. 

Inspired by this natural process, the synthetic tree consists of 19 plastic tubes 6 cm high with a 3.175 mm diameter each. As water goes up the tubes, it goes through a porous ceramic disk coated in graphite which has a leaf-like function and provides an evaporating surface. 

“The ultimate goal is to achieve a suction pressure strong enough to pull ocean water through a salt-excluding filter without requiring a mechanical pump, analogous to how mangrove trees are able to grow in ocean water,” said co-researcher Jonathan Boreyko. 

Studies carried out using the synthetic tree revealed that it could harvest three times more water than by only using a bulk water supply. Future work will involve testing the mechanisms with taller trees, adding more leaves, and using membranes to filter salt out of the water, said the engineers. 

Written By: Katrina Lane

Explore more: Science Innovations | Agriculture & Energy Innovations

Email: svivian@vt.edu

Website: aip.scitation.org

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