Air is the ultimate commons, something that no one can own but that everyone can access. But cruising through new discoveries on ScienceDaily, I discovered that we can get much more from air than just breath. Here are three cutting-edge technologies that allow us to pull resources right out of the air:

1. Water Nets: Six Rice University students and three professors (above) spent a month in Morocco developing a technology "that harvests potable water from the fog that envelops parts of the Atlas Mountains." The volleyball-net-like structures "grab liquid from the fog, which drips down the nets into collecting tubes. Gravity propels the drops down pipes that terminate at a water storage tank at the bottom of the mountain." At a cost of roughly $1,000-$1,500 to cover materials and maintenance for an average 10-year lifespan, says one of the students, "we can provide anywhere from 200 to 1,000 liters of water per day for a village." (Bonus: The ScienceDaily piece does a good job of describing this project as a case study in cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary scientific collaboration.)

2. Hygroelectricity Collectors: A team led by Fernando Galembeck at University of Campinas in Brazil has discovered that water in the atmosphere also picks up an electrical charge, something they call "hygroelectricity," meaning "humidity electricity."  They are in the early stages of developing "collectors, similar to the solar cells that collect the sunlight to produce electricity, to capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses," reports ScienceDaily. "Just as solar cells work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectrical panels would work more efficiently in areas with high humidity, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States and the humid tropics."

Credit: Mircea Tudorache

3. Compressed Air Engines: "Most motorcycles in the world today use engines that burn gasoline, contributing to greenhouse gasses and adding air pollution to the surrounding area," reports ScienceDaily. "Now two scientists in India have conceptually designed a new, cleaner motorcycle engine that uses compressed air to turn a small air turbine, generating enough power to run a motorcycle for up to 40 minutes." In places like India, motorcycles are a major form of transportation, and the researchers estimate that this new technology could reduce emissions by 50 to 60 percent in some areas, "though a number of technical challenges remain." For example, existing air tanks "would require someone to stop about every 30 km (19 mi) to swap tanks." Which actually sounds ideal for short urban jaunts. 

I'm impressed by the low-impact sustainability of each of these technologies, but each also seems like it could contribute substantially to community resiliency: they are modular, flexible, efficient, and scalable, and they draw specifically on local resources. 

Jeremy Adam Smith


Jeremy Adam Smith

Jeremy Adam Smith is the editor who helped launch Shareable.net. He's the author of The Daddy Shift (Beacon Press, June 2009); co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct (W.W. Norton

Things I share: Mainly babysitting with other parents! I also share all the transportation I can, through bikes and buses and trains and carpooling.