I love this part of spring — all the early snowdrops and crocuses have had their time, and the gardens are now filled with my favourites: showstopping tulips. It’s early enough that I’m still surprised by their presence. Soon we’ll be seeing all kinds of wonderful summerflowers in our neck of the woods, including roses of all stripes.
A team out of the University of Texas at Austin has taken inspiration from nature and looked to the rose for help with one of humanity’s biggest problem: sourcing clean water. The team sought a more efficient method of solar steaming — a process by which the heat of the sun is used to evaporate water up and away from contaminants, then collected and condensed back into clean drinking water. (Much like the principle of the solar still in that episode of Voyage of the Mimi.)
Current solar steaming technology is generally bulky and stationary. In order to have a real effect on water quality and availability in places it’s needed, portability and efficiency are key. The new system attempts to remedy this. As outlined by the team in a recent issue of Advanced Materials the solar steamer is inspired by an origami rose, featuring “petals” made of black paper coated with polypyrrole, all surrounding a collection tube that acts much like a stem. From UT Austin’s press release:
“[Leader Donglei (Emma)] Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, ‘The Black Tulip’ by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material – with more internal reflections – than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material.”
The device decontaminates the water from bacteria, heavy metals, and sea salt, and makes it fit for human drinking according to standards set out by the World Health Organization. Again, science looks toward the designs of nature for solutions to our problems. It is fitting that the rose — the harbinger of summer, subject of poetry carrier of centuries of symbolism — should find its form harnessed for our very human needs!