Desert Beetle Solves World’s Water Crisis

The Namib Desert Beetle condenses fog as a source of water.
Photo credit: Jochen Bihn via Flickr

Danielle LeVee, Global Animal

The Namib Desert Beetle condenses fog as a source of water. Photo credit: Jochen Bihn via Flickr

The most energy efficient and adept inventions are often inspired by nature. From the infamous bonding product Velcro, first inspired by the hooks of the plant burrs, to road reflectors, inspired by the reflector cells in cat’s eyes, inventors often turn to plants and animals for ideas.

Now, scientists are turning to the Namib Desert beetle for insight as to how to create a self-filling water bottle to solve the world’s clean water crisis.

The Namib Desert Beetle lives in one of the driest deserts in the world, the Namib on the southwest coast of Africa. This area only gets about half an inch of rainfall per year. Given the scarceness of water, the beetle had to develop a unique technique of capturing water in order to survive.

“Every morning this beetle climbs to the top of a sand dune, sticks its back to the wind, and drinks 12 percent of its weight in water,” explains Deckard Sorensen, co-founder of NBD Nanotechnologies, a company exploring water harvesting technology. “We use nanotechnology to mimic this beetle’s back so that we too can pull water from the air.”

The beetle’s bumpy back surface has microscopic bumps with hydrophilic (water loving) tips and hydrophobic (water hating) sides, which it aims at the morning winds. The moisture collects at the hydrophilic peaks, eventually accumulating to form water droplets. The droplets are taken by the philic/phobic created current into the beetle’s mouth. 

The beetle inspired NBD’s design for their water-collecting device, which consists of a coated hydrophilic and hydrophobic surface and a fan to pass air over the surface. NBD hopes their water bottle will be ready to enter the market by 2014.

The Namib beetle has already inspired an irrigation system called the Airdrop—designed by 2011 International Dyson Award-winner, Edward Linacre—that pumps and cools air through underground pipes to create condensation at plant roots.

A number of companies continue to research nature-inspired solutions to real-life problems. This being said, Mother Nature is very intelligent and should not be taken for granted; it is important for researchers to remember to look to her with esteem and appreciation.