Managing scarce water resources is problematic for many Middle East countries, and forecasts predict a more straitened situation ahead. Desalination plants are one way to manage water shortages, as more than two-thirds of the world’s desalination capacity is in this region, but processing seawater has enormous energy and environmental costs. Other approaches need to be developed to achieve sustainable growth.

Over the past seven years, Peng Wang and colleagues from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division, Saudi Arabia, have been looking for answers to these grand challenges by turning to very small science. The team specializes in producing materials and surfaces that purify, distill and catch water molecules with remarkable efficiency thanks to nanoscale techniques, many inspired by ingenious biological tricks.