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On the top floor of the University of Texas at Austin’s engineering building, students occasionally scribble notes as they quietly conduct experiments amid rows of cabinets packed with neatly labeled bottles. One table holds paper-thin slices of a white gel—with the appearance of a film—that has been cut into interlocking letters, a U and a T. The medium for this display of school spirit represents a major breakthrough in chemical engineering—a means of conjuring clean water out of thin air. It might even prove a lifesaver on a planet where two billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water.The film—a water-absorbing, power-conducting hydrogel—is the most recent in a long line of discoveries to emerge from the Yu Research Group, a lab headed by Chinese-born…
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