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Local professor’s fog research catches attention of the Defense Department

About 10 fog collectors are stationed behind the Cal State Monterey Bay library.

The Department of Defense recently awarded a $266,589 grant to a California State University Monterey Bay professor to continue his research into fog. Reporter Michelle Loxton spoke with Daniel Fernandez about how this grant will take his research to the next level.

For the last 15 years, Fernandez has been studying something the Monterey Peninsula has an abundance of, fog.

Credit Michelle Loxton/KAZU
Michelle Loxton/KAZU
Cal State Monterey Bay Professor Daniel Fernandez works in his garage researching fog with an FM-120 Fog Monitor.

“I was actually at a meditation retreat thinking about water and fog,” said Fernandez. "And all of a sudden I had this idea: I wonder if we could collect water from the fog?"

The physics and environmental science professor found out this wasn’t a new idea, but something that has been done for thousands of years, all over the world.

But he did know Monterey would be an excellent location to begin his research.

“When you have that big difference between cold water and warm air, you get a certain type of fog that is called often an invective or coastal fog," Fernandea said.

Fernandez has been studying fog with devices he builds, called fog collectors. They’re rectangular frames that are mounted vertically off the ground and are covered with mesh.

“When the droplets in the fog water hit the mesh, they fall. They land in the trough and then they run down the trough and are measured or collected by some device at the end of the trough,” said Fernandez.

He’s placed about 30 fog collectors in various locations across the Monterey Bay area, at the Marina Municipal Airport and on Fort Ord National Monument. A number of these fog collectors are also placed on the Cal State Monterey Bay campus.

“They look like a kind of a field of giants when you first come up here,” said Fernandez.

Behind the campus library, on a small hill, Fernandez shows off the fog collectors he built with his students.

From a distance they could almost be mistaken for an art installation featuring huge picture frames. Frames that when you examine up close, are covered in black woven plastic, with a water collection unit attached at the bottom.

“At this location, I've seen several liters in just one fog event that could occur over the period of a few hours,” said Fernandez.

At other locations, where the terrain is steeper and the fog is thicker, several gallons of water can be collected in a day.

And this is just one of the reasons Fernandez says the Department of Defense is interested in his fog research, water collection.

They also want to be able to predict fog better. Something he says is hard to do.

“We are much better at predicting huge impactful events like hurricanes than other types of events that I think are also very impactful, like fog,” Fernandez said.

Being able to better predict fog events means better preparation for things like bad visibility and air pollution.

“Fog is a vector," Fernandez said. "It carries pollutants in it, more than does rain for instance."

With the money from the grant, Fernandez is buying a lot of equipment; a sonic anemometer that measures wind speed and direction, an instrument that can measure the height of clouds, and the big purchase, the FM-120 Fog Monitor.

“The FM-120 gives me the signature of the fog or the fingerprint of the fog, because fog can consist of droplets that vary anywhere from about one micron in diameter. That's one millionth of a meter, all the way to about 50 microns,” said Fernandez.

At his home in Marina, Fernandez is using his garage as a workshop. There’s a surfboard, bicycles and things you’d commonly find in someone’s garage.

But there’s also a fog-making-machine hooked up to hose pipe.

“So right now the numbers are like two, five, four. They're really small in terms of the number of droplets. Watch how big they get in just about 10 seconds,” Fernandez said.

He turns on the fog maker and follows the readings on one of those fancy fog monitors, on loan.

“275, 603... 1,000. So this is the fingerprint that I was talking about,” said Fernandez.

Fernandez says the study of fog and how we get water from it, is critical.

“Water is tied to everything. It's tied to our economy, it's tied to our infrastructure and it's tied to our national security and the world's security,” said Fernandez.

The World Resources Institute released a report this year, saying many communities across the world currently face an increasing risk of reaching “Day Zero,” a day when taps run dry. That includes communities on the Central Coast.