Climate change

MIT research could be game-changer in combating water shortages

With the number of people experiencing water shortages expected to increase more due to climate change, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that hydrogel can absorb moisture from the atmosphere as the temperature rises

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A potentially groundbreaking discovery is happening right in our own backyard.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that a common material could help solve the world's water problems.

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A recent U.N. report states that the number of people facing water shortages will go from 930 million in 2016 all the way up to 2.4 billion by the year 2050.

Farmers like Jim Ward of Ward's Berry Farm in Sharon have had to deal with longer stretches of droughts and dry conditions.

"The really dry stretches seem to be more prolonged than they used to be," said Ward.

Just last summer, several regions of Massachusetts were in a critical drought stage, the second highest level.

"We hit that drought last summer, it was, you know, a month, month and a half without a tenth of an inch," said Ward. "That's pretty devastating when you're growing crops that are growing quickly."

According to the U.N. World Water Report, prolonged droughts are stressing ecosystems with dire consequences for both plant and animal species.

For years, researchers have tried to figure out a way to harvest or create fresh water. It can be pulled from the ocean and from lakes, but removing the salt or purifying it takes a lot of energy and could contribute to climate change.

Inside a lab on the MIT campus, Xinyue Liu, Lenan Zhang and a team of researchers discovered that hydrogel, or polyethylene glycol — a material commonly used in cosmetic creams, industrial coatings and pharmaceutical capsules — can absorb moisture from the atmosphere as the temperature rises.

"Most solvent material can do this, but not too much of them can do that at a higher temperature like 100 degrees Fahrenheit," said Liu.

Most absorbent materials lose their ability to retain water as temperatures rise, but not hydrogel, according the MIT research. And for a planet that's getting hotter, this could be a game-changing discovery.

The team says it could one day be used to harvest moisture for drinking water or for feeding crops.

Liu said the idea is to be able to scale this up and bring water to an area that might not have any.

"I think that's the major motivation," she said. "I think I'm pretty excited about that, and we are pretty optimistic about the technology."

Back at the farm in Sharon, workers currently use everything from drip irrigation to making their own compost to help conserve water. Ward said he's always excited to hear about new innovations.

"I love the fact that science and really smart people can potentially help us with some troubling problems," said Ward.

Click here to learn more about the MIT research.

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