Tag Archives: organic

There are pesticides inside your body — but an organic diet can flush them out

A study following four American families for two weeks found that everyone’s bodies contain chemicals — but they can be flushed out.

Image in Creative Commons

To feed the almost 8 billion people around the world (and furthermore, ensure rich and diverse diets for the richer countries), we’re spraying our crops with an impressive amount of pesticides. In one way, this is extremely helpful, drastically reducing the negative impact of pests and diseases that have plagued our crops for millennia. But there’s a downside to pesticides as well: we may end up ingesting them, and they could be harmful to our health.

Roundup, the world’s most widely used weedkiller, contains a compound called glyphosate. There’s a lot of scientific debate regarding the actual perils of glyphosate, but the compound was flagged as a potential carcinogen as far back as 1983 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although there is contradictory evidence regarding the health dangers posed by this chemical, public debate has been shaped by the corporate lobby just as much as (if not more than) scientific evidence. As a result, the EPA has raised the accepted level of glyphosate substantially (in some cases by a factor of 300) above levels considered safe in 1990. Unsurprisingly, the presence of glyphosate in average Americans has also skyrocketed, from 12% in the mid-1970s to 70% by 2014.

The new study paints an even more concerning picture, as all members of the four families tracked contained glyphosate. The family members were tracked for six days on their regular diet, and for six days, they were asked to switch to a completely organic diet (various places have various definitions for what organic really means, but in this case, it was pesticide-free food). In just six days, the level of glyphosate in their bodies dropped by 70%.

We’ve written before about organic diets and how the alleged benefits of such diets are often exaggerated and blown out of proportion, but this study seems to show a tangible benefit. There is still a debate on whether or not the pesticides are causing any actual damage, but the authors of the study believe the pesticide levels can be hazardous, especially in children.

“While food residues often fall within levels that regulators consider safe, even government scientists have made it clear that US regulations have not kept pace with the latest science,” one of the study authors writes in an article for The Guardian. “For one, they ignore the compounding effects of our daily exposures to a toxic soup of pesticides and other industrial chemicals. Nor do they reflect that we can have higher risks at different times in our lives and in different conditions: a developing fetus, for instance, is particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures, as are children and the immunocompromised. Instead, US regulators set one “safe” level for all of us. New research also shows that chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” can increase the risk of cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects, obesity, diabetes, and reproductive disorders, even at incredibly small levels. (Think the equivalent of one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools.).”

Other areas have implemented stricter controls on how much glyphosate and other pesticides are used. In the EU, while the use of glyphosate isn’t banned, it’s limited to a much lower amount than in the US, and it’s not just this particular pesticide.

The US allows 70 pesticides currently banned in the EU, pesticides that can harm not only humans but also bees and other pollinators, causing a chain reaction that can lead to ecosystem collapse. Pesticides also have many negative environmental effects, including contributing to climate change — A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that about 30% of global emissions leading to climate change are attributable to agricultural activities, including pesticide use.

The big problem with organic food is that it’s expensive, but this could be addressed by shifting subsidies from pesticides to organic-based agriculture, the researchers believe. The US spends billions of dollars to support pesticide-based agriculture, while organic agriculture is woefully underfunded, despite growing demand.

However, organic food also tends to use up more land and water and comes with its own set of challenges. The relationship between health, organic agriculture, and the environment is complex but, if nothing else, it seems to be able to help to reduce our internal pesticide content. The problem is that for many, organic food is a luxury, or at best, a preference — when it could be seen as a public good. To make matters even more complicated, organic products are almost always significantly more expensive than non-organic products, and the benefits of organic food are often exaggerated. Just like the Green Revolution of the 1970s that brought pesticides, a new revolution could ensure that organic food becomes more and more available for more and more people, boosting public health and saving money in the long run by eliminating cancers and other health problems associated with pesticides (which can be very expensive to treat). 

Ultimately, agriculture is bound to be complex in our modern world, and the line between “good” and “bad” is not always as clear as we’d want it to be. This new study offers important information regarding the real benefits of organic foods, and while results will need to be confirmed in larger studies, it’s still important to consider these advantages.

A look at the harmony of organic architecture

One of the simplest and most intuitive definitions of organic architecture is that it aims to design buildings that are in harmony with nature and their surroundings.

You hear the word ‘organic’ quite a lot these days, usually from people trying to sell you something (or from those annoying friends who shop at Whole Foods and can’t shut up about it). Architecture also uses the term. Thankfully, it doesn’t have anything to do with pesticides or fertilizers — but everything to do with function and form.

A miniature model of the Fallingwater house.
Image via Wikimedia.

The term ‘organic architecture’ has been in use for quite some time, it was probably brought to the public’s attention by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his spectacular works. It refers to a particular way of designing that strives to balance a space’s or building’s function and its environment, follow natural forms, and seamlessly merge buildings with their surroundings.

The style isn’t limited to playing with shapes. Organic architecture often uses local materials for the building itself and furnishings, and works to include the exterior area in the design process to create a unified whole. Like an organism, such structures are meant to take materials from their environment, grow in it, and finally become a part of it.

Along with brutalism — which is in many regards its diametral opposite — it is my favorite architectural school. Since I’m the guy in charge of the keyboard and there’s nothing you can do to stop me, strap in and let’s take a small detour into the world of organic architecture.

Wright’s Principles

The Bavinger House in Oklahoma, United States.
Image via Wikimedia.

Wright is perhaps most responsible for turning organic architecture from a quirky rarity into a full-blown style. Over the course of his career (which started around the 1880s,) he developed a group of principles that he described as “solidly basic to my sense and practice of architecture,” which he adhered to in his work. While not exactly a ruleset, some later architects were very eager to adopt them and develop on the style. As such, they’re a pretty reliable summary of the philosophy that underlies organic architecture. As per the website of the Meyer May House, designed by Wright, they are:

  • Shelter — the fundamental role of a building is to provide shelter. Wright, however, “saw a building primarily not as a cave, but as shelter in the open,” and guided his designs toward this goal.
  • Kinship of Building to the Ground — best summed up by Wright as “make the building belong to the ground”, make it fit into its environment.
  • Interpretation — that the “space outside becomes a natural part of space within the building”.
  • Addendum — because of the integration between outside and inside spaces, these buildings are “profoundly natural” and “never dull or monotonous”.
  • Form — “Arrangements for human occupation in comfort may be so well aimed that spaciousness becomes economical as well as beautiful, appearing where it was never before thought to exist.”
  • Space — Wright saw homes as both useful implements and works of art, adding that their “intrinsic beauty [makes them] more a home than ever”.
  • Tenuity and Continuity — this principle advocates for the elimination of “any constructed feature such as any fixture or appliance whatsoever,” and continuity between shapes — in essence, that the design be kept simple with shapes that grow out of and build on one another seamlessly.
  • Materials — this principle doesn’t advocate for specific materials, but it does ask that those materials stay true to themselves, in a sense; “wood and plaster will be content to and will look, as well, as wood and plaster,” Wright hold adding that “they will not aspire to be treated to resemble marble”.
  • Decentralization — Wright believed that “the natural place for the beautiful tall building – not in its present form but in its new sense – is in the country, not the city”.
  • Character is Natural — while a building’s design should follow its function, it shouldn’t focus solely on efficiency.

If they sound a bit abstract, worry not — I had a difficult time understanding what these principles meant until I actually saw them in action. Let’s take a look at some of the more famous organic architecture buildings out there, then.

Fallingwater — Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, Pennsylvania.
Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pexels.

The Fallingwater house was designed by Wright in 1935 as a private weekend getaway for American businessman and philanthropist Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. In 1963, his son Edgar Kaufmann Jr. entrusted both the house and the 1,500 of land that made up the property to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He saw the house as a place where people can come and experience the beauty of architecture, art, and nature, or a place of study.

The Fallingwater Institute remains true to that vision even today, creating a setting for learning through classes, workshops, and residencies at the house.

View of the living room from the kitchen.
Image credits Jack E Boucher / Historic American Buildings Survey / Library of Congress.

Fallingwater embodies the design philosophies of Mr. Wright and is often seen as one of his masterpieces. It’s also the first of his works that I learned about, but it’s not my favorite one on this list. Currently, the house is listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Lotus Temple — Fariborz Sahba

Image via Pexels.
Image credits SridharSaraf / Flickr.

Designed by Iranian-Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba in 1986, the temple was inspired by a lotus flower. It’s an actual temple, which sees actual worship right now — in fact, being a temple of the Baháʼí faith, which accepts all current religions as valid, it’s open to everyone, no matter their beliefs or creed.

A model of the Lotus Temple displayed at its information center in New Delhi, India.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila — Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila, front facade.
Image credits Ian Gampon / Flickr.

Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera or “The stone quarry”), built in Barcelona, Spain, was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi between 1905 and 1910. The more astute among you might have observed that there’s something unusual about this building — it’s quite wobbly.

The design is dominated by honeycomb sections and a rippled exterior and was very controversial in its early days. The city of Barcelona actually required the demolition of certain portions of the building during construction (as they exceeded allowed heights at the time) and beefed-up building codes in response to this structure. Gaudi envisioned the building as a spiritual place (he was a devout Catholic), but in the end built it for a wealthy couple returning from the US. Today, however, Casa Mila is held in high regard by locals and serves as an apartment building.

Interior yard of Casa Mila.
Image via Pikrepo.
Casa Mila, roof panorama.
Image via Wikimedia.

Casa Mila is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

Taliesin West — Frank Lloyd Wright

Taliesin West.
Image credits Artotem / Flickr.
The garden room at Taliesin West.
Image via Wikimedia.

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, served as Wright’s winter home — and school — from 1937 until his death in 1959. It was named after the architect’s summer home Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Today it houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and acts as the main campus of The School of Architecture at Taliesin. The building is dominated by striking terraces and walkways meant to display the surrounding desert landscape of ever-shifting sandbars. It is open to public visitation and also listed as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site.

The Onion House — Kendrick Bangs Kellogg

Image via Wikimedia.
Image via Wikimedia.

This delicate structure was designed and hand-built by Mr. Kellogg in Hawaii.

The buildings includes stained glass and translucent roof panels to allow as much color and light inside as possible — both during the day and during the night. The structures are surrounded by gardens, pools, and fish ponds — and it all rests on a magmatic rock terrace over the Kona Coast.

This is my favorite one on the list.

Image via Wikimedia.

Why does architecture matter?

Beyond the obvious pleasure and creature comforts these buildings promise, our environments play a big role in shaping our mood and behaviors. We spend most of our time inside buildings, so their effect on our lives is profound.

However, the field that studies the interactions between the human mind and its surroundings, environmental psychology, is still in its infancy. What we do know so far is that the way we design our buildings and cities can affect our well-being and moods, and that certain cells in the hippocampus of our brains react to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit. On a more cultural level, architecture is an indirect representation of a culture’s values, ideals, and concepts of beauty. On a personal level, I think we can all easily tell the effect a nice home or space has on our moods.

In the end, there are still many unknowns here — but not the fact that architecture has a direct impact on our lives. In the words of Winston Churchill, as he was addressing the English Architectural Association in 1924:

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

Mars.

Natural batteries formed Mars’ organic carbon

Mars’ organic carbon was formed in batteries. Huge, naturally-occurring batteries — sort-of.

Mars.

Image credits Aynur Zakirov.

The organic carbon found on Mars has both excited and perplexed researchers. When it was first discovered, this element reignited our hopes of finding life on the red planet. Later, it became apparent that things aren’t so straightforward. However, that still left us with a question: if not life, then what, exactly, created all this organic carbon?

New research from the Carnegie Institution for Science shows that the answer is even more surprising than you’d have assumed. Mars’ organic carbon may originate from a series of electrochemical reactions between briny liquids and volcanic minerals — in essence, natural batteries.

An electrifying find

“Revealing the processes by which organic carbon compounds form on Mars has been a matter of tremendous interest for understanding its potential for habitability,” says lead researcher Andrew Steele.

The research has roots in Steele’s previous work. Back in 2012, he led a team that found organic carbon in 10 Martian meteorites. The team also established that the carbon content wasn’t due to contamination from Earth and that it didn’t have a biological origin. All organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and some include oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or other elements. Organic compounds are commonly associated with life, although they can be created by non-biological processes as well, which are referred to as abiotic organic chemistry.

To find out how this organic carbon was generated, the team worked with a trio of Martian meteorites that made their way to Earth — Tissint, Nakhla, and NWA 1950. Chemical analysis revealed that the hunks of rock contain organic carbon. Furthermore, its very similar chemically to the organic carbon found during the Mars Science Laboratory’s rover missions.

After establishing that the rocks did indeed contain organic carbon, and that its very likely originated on Mars, the team looked at their mineral makeup. Using advanced microscopy and spectroscopy, they determined that the organic compounds were likely created through electrochemical corrosion of minerals in Martian rocks by a surrounding salty liquid, brine.

“The discovery that natural systems can essentially form a small corrosion-powered battery that drives electrochemical reactions between minerals and surrounding liquid has major implications for the astrobiology field,” Steele explained.

Such processes aren’t new to science. We’ve seen evidence of them on Earth — particularly early in this planets’ history –, and now, we seem to have found some underway on Mars. That’s actually pretty good news — it means that they should, in theory, be able to take place anywhere igneous (volcanic) rocks are surrounded by brine. This means there’s a chance of seeing such processes unfolding in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. If this is the case, they could be used as a source of CO2 to jump-start potential colonies.

The paper “Organic synthesis on Mars by electrochemical reduction of CO2” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Enceladus interior.

Enceladus “the only body besides Earth to satisfy all of the basic requirements for life,” Cassini reveals

Data beamed back by the Cassini spacecraft reveals that Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, isn’t shy about blasting large organic molecules into space.

Enceladus interior.

Hydrothermal processes in the moon’s rocky core could synthesize organics from inorganic precursors. Alternatively, these processes could be transforming preexisting organics by heating, or they could even generate geochemical conditions in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus that would allow possible forms of alien life to synthesize biological molecules.
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/LPG-CNRS/Nantes-Angers/ESA

Mass spectrometry readings beamed back by NASA’s Cassini craft show that Enceladus is bursting with organic molecules. The moon’s icy surface is pockmarked with deep cracks that spew complex, carbon-rich compounds into space. Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) say these compounds are likely the result of interactions between the moon’s rocky core and warm waters from its subsurface ocean.

Why so organic?

“We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus,” said SwRI’s Dr. Christopher Glein, co-author of a paper describin the discovery.

“Now we’ve found organic molecules with masses above 200 atomic mass units. That’s over ten times heavier than methane. With complex organic molecules emanating from its liquid water ocean, this moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it.”

The Cassini mission, a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency, is widely-held to be one of the most ambitious space exploration missions we’ve ever embarked upon. Launched on October 15, 1997, Cassini spent some 13 years studying the gas giant and its moons. The craft also flew by Venus (April 1998 and July 1999), Earth (August 1999), the asteroid 2685 Masursky, and Jupiter (December 2000), before settling in on Saturn’s orbit on July 1st, 2001.

Enceladus. Image credits: NASA/JPL.

On September 15, 2017, NASA de-commissioned the aging craft with a bang: they deorbited Cassini, letting it fall towards Saturn’s core and burn up in its atmosphere.

However, the wealth of information this tiny craft beamed back from its travels is still giving astronomers a lot to work on. Before its fiery demise, Cassini sampled the plume material ejected from the subsurface of Enceladus. Using its Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and the SwRI-led Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instruments, the craft analyzed both the plume itself and Saturn’s E-ring — which is formed by ice grains from the plumes trapped in Saturn’s gravity well.

Chemicals Enceladus.

Synthesis path of different aromatic cations identified in Enceladus’ plume.
Image credits F. Postberg et al., 2018, Nature.

During one of Cassini’s particularly close flybys of Enceladus (Oct. 28, 2015), the INMS detected molecular hydrogen in the moon’s plume ejections. Previous flybys also revealed the presence of a global subsurface ocean and a rocky core. This was the first indication that the moon can boast active geochemical below the surface, most likely between water and rocks in hydrothermal vents.

The presence of hydrogen was also grounds for great enthusiasm at NASA — the element is a known source of chemical energy for microbes living in hydrothermal vents here on good ol’ Earth.

“Once you have identified a potential food source for microbes, the next question to ask is ‘what is the nature of the complex organics in the ocean?'” says SwRI’s Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS principal investigator and paper coauthor. “This paper represents the first step in that understanding — complexity in the organic chemistry beyond our expectations!”

The findings are significant enough to influence further exploration, Glen believes. Any spacecraft that flies towards Enceladus in the future should make a point of going through its plume to analyze these complex organic molecules with a high-resolution mass spectrometer to “help us determine how they were made.”

“We must be cautious, but it is exciting to ponder that this finding indicates that the biological synthesis of organic molecules on Enceladus is possible.”

The paper “Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus” has been published in the journal Nature.

Ceres organic matter.

New analysis reveals that Ceres’ spots harbor a lot of organic material

New research shows Ceres’ surface is dotted with organic matter — much more of it that we’ve previously realized. The findings raise questions regarding how this material came to be, and why it concentrates in patches.

Ceres organic matter.

Spots of organic material near Ernutet crater on the dwarf planet Ceres.
Credit: NASA / Hannah Kaplan.

There seems to be more to the organic material the Dawn craft discovered on Ceres last year than we initially thought. The patches of carbon-based compounds may contain a much higher abundance of organic matter than initial analysis revealed, according to a new analysis from Brown University.

Organic, free-range Ceres

“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data,” said Hannah Kaplan, lead researcher of the study. “That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”

The discovery of these organic patches on Ceres last year was made using the Visible and Infrared (VIR) Spectrometer on the Dawn spacecraft, which has been in orbit of the dwarf planet since 2015. The finding was met with enthusiasm at NASA and beyond: organic molecules are, after all, the building blocks of life. So, scientists are understandably keen on finding out how such matter is distributed on planets other than our own. The presence of these compounds on Ceres isn’t proof that there was once life on this bit of rock. However, it definitely increases the odds. Factor in that Ceres also boasts a sizeable stash of water ice, another fundamental requirement for life as we know it, and you get quite the exciting place.

The picture may get even better, however. Dawn’s VIR instrument analyzed the patches on Ceres’ surface using the way its surface interacts with incoming light. By looking at what wavelengths these patches reflected and absorbed, ground control could estimate their chemical makeup. In the region of Ernutet Crater (Ceres’ northern hemisphere), Dawn picked up signals consistent with organic molecules. Next, NASA needed to know just how much organic material they had found — so they compared the VIR data to similar readings performed on samples of organic material from Earth. Based on this comparison, they concluded that Ceres’ spots comprised roughly 10% organic matter.

Kaplan and her team, however, weren’t satisfied with the reference standard NASA used — so they re-did the comparison using a different one. Instead of using Earth-borne rocks, they used samples of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. Previous analysis of such space rocks that fell to Earth revealed that they contained organic material that is slightly different from that native to our planet.

“What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there,” Kaplan said.

“We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”

Unknown origin

The team proposes two possible explanations for how organic material popped up on Ceres in such high concentrations. They could either have been produced on Ceres itself and then blasted to the surface. Alternatively, they could have been delivered by impacts with organic-rich comets or asteroids.

In the case of delivery, comets are more likely culprits than asteroids — the former tend to have higher contents of organic material, around 40 to 50 percent, which would be consistent with Ceres’ patches. However, this explanation seems unlikely, the team notes. The violence and heat of these impacts would likely destroy a substantial amount of the original organic material, meaning we’d see much lower concentrations on the surface.

The other explanation, that of in-situ generation, is also problematic. Organic material has only been identified in small patches on Ceres’ northern hemisphere — and, if the team’s findings are correct, in high concentrations. It’s a lot of organic material spread over a very small area, and we have no idea how it could get like this.

“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots,” said Ralph Milliken, a study co-author.

“It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”

It’s not all unanswered questions. The research will help improve our ability to analyze the chemical make-up of extraterrestrial bodies. The team hopes their findings will “provide a framework of how to better interpret data of asteroids and make links between spacecraft observations and samples in our meteorite collection.”

With NASA announcing that it discovered organic material on Mars just one week ago, it seems that the universe may be a much more organic place than we’d assumed.

The paper “New Constraints on the Abundance and Composition of Organic Matter on Ceres” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

MOF-303 crystals.

New material harvests water from thin air without using energy — even in dry, arid Arizona

One kilogram of the new metal-organic framework (MOF) material can produce 0.2 liters (7 ounces) of water every 24 hours — even in dry Arizona.

Device prototype.

The team’s prototype water harvester.
Image credits: Wang Laboratory / MIT.

Us reading this probably take it for granted that if you turn a tap in your kitchen freshwater flows out. However, many people make their homes in arid areas where that is just a pipe dream — but they still need a reliable source of water. A new material developed by a team at the University of California, Berkley, might be just what provides that hydration. One kilogram of the material, a metal-organic framework (MOF), produced 0.2 liters (7 ounces) of water during a 24-hour trial in Arizona — without using any energy.

Water from thin air

The team first built a prototype water harvester last year — it used solar heat to capture water vapor from the air. Now, they’ve scaled up their device, plopped it down in the backyard of a tract home in Arizona, and waited for it to complete a full 24-hour cycle. The results are consistent with what the team predicted in 2017, after running their prototype through field trials: the new, larger device can produce drinkable water at very low humidity for almost no cost.

“There is nothing like this,” said Omar Yaghi, paper co-author. “It operates at ambient temperature with ambient sunlight, and with no additional energy input you can collect water in the desert. This laboratory-to-desert journey allowed us to really turn water harvesting from an interesting phenomenon into a science.”

The trial was carried out in Scottsdale. Relative humidity here drops from 40% at night to 8% during the day, the team reports. Despite this, the harvester worked — and, according to the team, it can easily be scaled up by simply adding more MOF. This highly porous material, MOF-801, was produced from metal zirconium. The researchers calculate that one kilogram of this material (2.2 pounds) can harvest about 200 milliliters (about 7 ounces) of water per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of MOF.

MOF-303 crystals.

Optical microscope images of MOF-303 crystals.
Image credits Omar Yaghi laboratory, UC Berkeley

However, Yahgi says the team has also been working on a new MOF, dubbed MOF-303, based on aluminum. This should be much cheaper than MOF-801 — the team estimates it will be at least 150 times cheaper — and twice as effective. Lab tests showed that MOF-303 could produce over 400 milliliters (14 ounces) of water per day per kilogram of MOF — equivalent to about 3 cups.

“There has been tremendous interest in commercializing this, and there are several startups already engaged in developing a commercial water-harvesting device,” Yaghi said. “The aluminum MOF is making this practical for water production, because it is cheap.”

MOFs are solids, but they’re mostly hollow. They’re crisscrossed with an immense number of internal channels or holes, giving them a huge equivalent surface area: one sugar-cube-sized piece of MOF has the internal surface of roughly six football fields, the team notes.

Because of all of this surface area, MOFs easily trap gases or liquids. When heated, they release the fluids, allowing for easy retrieval.

The team’s harvester is essentially a box placed within another box. The inner structure packs a 2-square-foot bed of MOF pallets, open to the air, to absorb moisture. The outer box is a 2-foot cube, constructed out of transparent plastic. The top is left open at night to let moist air flow in and come into contact with the MOF, and replaced during the night to heat the material so it releases stored water. This water then condenses on the insides of the outer box, drips to the bottom, and gets collected.

While not yet suited for commercial applications (for example, the team had to harvest the water with a pipette), it does marvelously as a proof-of-concept device. It could lead the way to cheap and reliable water harvesters for use in arid areas. It will also capture water at sub-zero dew points, the team notes.

The team plans to test their aluminum-based MOF later this summer in the Death Valley National Park, to see how it performs in these higher average temperatures.

The paper “Practical water production from desert air” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Residents from this homeless shelter support themselves by working in an organic garden

Unfortunately, homelessness is still a major problem in most parts of the world. However, people are trying to fight with more creative solutions, and it has been working out. At a homeless shelter in Atlanta for instance, residents can grow their own vegetables. The shelter has a large rooftop garden that can yield a great amount of healthy greens.

The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless initiated this program so that homeless people have access to organic food. Now, the shelter residents grow 80 garden beds which produce everything from carrots and chart to potatoes and squash. The benefits of the program are twofold: on one hand, they are growing food for themselves, taking a step towards self-sufficiency; on the other hand, they are developing new skills which can help them get into the labor force easier.

The mass construction of homes ironically brought forth an increase in homelessness. Today, few people are capable of building their own homes. Specialization increases demand and price, and this raised the costs of living – to the point where some people simply can’t afford it. In 2005, an estimated 100 million people worldwide were homeless, and that number has undoubtely grown with the situation in Syria and surroundings. The problem is especially acute in urban areas, both in the developed and developing world.

Personally, I think this is a great idea. We need projects like this to help fight homelessness because whether we like it or not, the problem is growing more and more with no solution in sight.