UW News

March 18, 2013

UW students create, harvest fog in campus ‘hoop house’

News and Information

In the fog chamber, a thick cool mist rolls from one end to the other blurring glasses, wetting caps and coats and sending water dripping down the latest test panel.

University of Washington students have been testing low-cost materials capable of harvesting water from fog in a temporary “hoop house” next to the Botany Greenhouse. They create the fog with a specially adapted power washer and record how much water condenses and drips off various panels of low-cost materials, such as shade cloth.

Facutly members examines creen of green matting in haze of fog

In tests on campus this month, faculty member Ben Spencer checks the water condensing and dripping down matting material used in landscapes to control soil erosion. The group is evaluating inexpensive, readily available materials for fog harvesting.P Cromwell/U of Washington

They specifically want to find a way to help residents on the northern edge of Lima, Peru, where less than half an inch of rain falls, but heavy fogs occur consistently for six to nine months a year. The faculty and students are seeking a way to condense enough water to irrigate new plantings that would, in turn, harvest fog on their own, naturally bringing water into the landscape, said Susan Bolton, a professor of environmental and forest sciences and one of the group’s instructors.

To that end, they are also testing various plants as fog collectors: Vines, for example, because winemaking is a growing industry in Peru and residents might plant vineyards. Or perhaps a city park with trees could be created.

The landscape once had trees that collected fog, but 500 years ago Spanish colonizers denuded Lima’s fog-fed dry forests.

The UW group and 43 other university teams last year competed and each received a $15,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet program. Teams are developing ideas to make such things as water, energy and agriculture more sustainable in developed or developing countries. In April the groups will send representatives to Washington, D.C., trying to win one of the grants worth up to $90,000 to implement their ideas.

Doug Ewing, who runs the botany greenhouse, heard about the project and helped the group adapt some of equipment used in the greenhouse. He and his crew, for example, use a power washer set-up, but with a different nozzle, in the greenhouse to cool plants when it gets hot.

Humans have long fashioned structures meant to cause dew or fog to condense. Today, for example, the Canadian non-profit FogQuest tries to help communities, particularly in Chile, harvest drinking water. FogQuest says a 48-square-yard fog collector can produce an average of more than 50 gallons per day.

“We hope we improve upon standard fog collection models by finding ways to increase collection rates while decreasing the amount of material used and energy needed by communities to construct and maintain the collectors,” said Peter Cromwell, a graduate student in landscape architecture.

“The UW project wants to take that a step farther by thinking about it as part of larger social, environmental and economic systems,” said Ben Spencer, assistant professor of landscape architecture. “Our focus on fog collection as a source of water for households and irrigation of green space responds directly to priorities expressed by the community. Low-cost systems of fog collection would empower the community to take charge of their own water resources and improve their environment and living conditions.”