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Science fiction classic puts spotlight on faculty research

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert captured the imagination of readers with Dune, his book about a planet on which it never rained and water was the scarcest resource. That was 50 years ago. It has sold almost 20 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling science fiction novel of all time.

CSU Fullerton, where Herbert’s papers are archived, is mounting a 50th anniversary celebration with an exhibit and lecture series. Cal State Monterey Bay Professor Dan Fernandez was invited to participate. His talk – Every Last Drop: Extracting Water from Fog – is based on research he has conducted since 2005. “I think about Dune a lot,” Dr. Fernandez told the science magazine Nautilus. “I wasn't quite aware that the regional fog work I am doing was going to be compared so closely to Frank Herbert's novel. I welcome the interest.” It’s not hard to understand the reason for that interest. Dune is set thousands of years in the future, but for California, in the fourth year of a drought, the future is now. Fog catchers – remarkably Dune-like devices – are relatively low-tech constructions that pull water from the marine layer by means of polypropylene mesh attached to a frame.

The mesh intercepts fog; the tiny droplets of water that make up fog drip down into a steel trough. On a good day, Dr. Fernandez said, a single fog catcher can capture up to 8 gallons of potable water in 24 hours. Because of the prolonged drought in California, Dr. Fernandez gets several calls a week about fog catchers. Currently, he’s working with the FogNet project, a collaborative effort among CSUMB, UC Santa Cruz, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Humboldt State Marine Labs, Bodega Bay Marine Labs, San Francisco State University, Pepperwood Preserve and the U.S. Geological Survey. The goal is to measure output from fog catchers and analyze the chemical composition of the captured water. Dr. Fernandez and his students have set up 20 fog catchers around California, along with gauges to measure the accumulation of water. He points out that the devices won’t make a meaningful difference in the drought. Californians consume too much water – fog catchers couldn’t meet the demand. They make sense only at the margins.

“Let’s look at how much water we are using, and how much water we could get back from fog,” he told Nautilus. “That might give us another perspective on our own water use.”