Loofahs are a vine in the cucumber family, producing large fruits than can be dried and used as a sponge. But could they be inspiring clean up on a bigger scale than just your shower? New research in ACS Central Science takes inspiration from these traditional scrubbers to purify water.

Close-up of a loofah sponge

More than 1.5 million people die each year from complications caused by unsafe drinking water, and developing advanced purification technologies remains a challenge, especially in under-resourced environments. Solar-driven evaporation strategies are desirable, but they require new techniques to overcome the intensive solar energy requirement that often results in a relatively low water evaporation rate in many environments. New research in ACS Central Science presents a novel method of water purification inspired by an everyday item used in many showers: the loofah.

Loofahs, members of the cucumber family known as “sponge gourds,” have an open-pore network of densely interconnected cellulose fibers—a structure that enables rapid liquid permeation. Inspired by this, a team of researchers developed a porous hydrogel to facilitate water transport quickly and effectively. They found that the loofah-inspired gel was able to purify water from a variety of harmful sources at a rate four times greater than conventional hydrogels previously used for solar-driven purification.

The water purification begins by immersing the hydrogel in contaminated water below the lower critical solution temperature, causing the gel to swell with water while rejecting contaminates. Subsequent exposure to natural sunlight induces solar absorption, which thermally heats the gel and switches it from a hydrophilic to a hydrophobic state. At this point, the gel then rapidly releases the clean water, which is free from common pollutants including organic dyes, heavy metals, oils, biological pathogens, and microplastics.

In addition to reducing the burden of unclean water on human health across the globe, the authors report that the new hydrogel presents a promising solution for other practical applications such as drug delivery sensing technologies.

Read the full article: Quick-Release Antifouling Hydrogels for Solar-Driven Water Purification

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