A desiccant is a substance with very hygroscopic properties, meaning it will soak up water vapor from the air surrounding it. A number of different substances are capable of doing this, but only a relative few of them are of practical use and fewer still are going to be readily available to the average person. Before elaborating on the different types that might be useful for our purposes it's necessary to explain how to choose a desiccant.
The U.S. military has done much of the best research on the use of desiccants in packaging and have largely set the standards by which they are judged. Each type of desiccant has temperature and humidity ranges where it performs best and particular physical and chemical characteristics that may need to be considered in relation to what you propose to do with them.
The most applicable standard for home food storage defines a unit of desiccant as the amount of desiccant that will adsorb at least 6 grams of water vapor at 40% relative humidity at 77° F (25° C).
The following table gives the amount of desiccant necessary per square area for flexible containers such as Mylar bags or per volume of area for rigid containers such five gallon pails or #10 metal cans.
Units of Desiccant Needed per Given Container Volume.
FLEXIBLE CONTAINERS RIGID CONTAINERS
(Mylar and other plastic bags) (Buckets, cans, jars, etc.)
Desiccant Units of Volume in:
Area sq ft Area sq in Required Gallons Cu/FT Cu/In
0.1 30 1/6 1.1 0.14 237
0.3 45 1/3 2.1 0.28 476
0.6 90 1/2 3.2 0.42 714
1.3 180 1 6.2 0.83 1,428
1.9 270 2 12.5 1.67 2,856
2.5 360 3 18.7 2.50 4,284
3.1 450 4 25.0 3.33 5,712
This is all well and good so far as it goes but without knowing how much of a particular type of desiccant is needed to soak up that six grams of water it doesn't do you much good. The next table will reveal all:
Desiccant Needed to Adsorb 6 Grams of Water Vapor
Silica Gel 15 grams
Indicating Silica Gel 75 grams1
Montmorillonite Clay 24 grams
Calcium Oxide (quicklime) 21.5 grams
Calcium Sulfate (gypsum, Drierite) 60 grams
Wood 43 grams1
1See desiccant descriptions for clarification.
In order to maximize surface area to obtain optimal adsorption, desiccants are manufactured in granular or powder forms. This presents a problem of keeping the desiccant, which may not be safe for direct contact with food, out of the product while still allowing sufficient air flow for it to carry out its task. Manufacturers call this "dusting" and deal with it by packaging the adsorbent in materials such as uncoated Tyvek, a spunbonded high-density polyethylene material produced by the Dupont corporation. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to locate a retail source of uncoated Tyvek, just the coated variety such as is used in postal envelopes. Second best, and what I use, is two or more layers of coffee filter paper securely sealed over the mouth of the container holding the desiccant. I've also made "cartridges" of filter paper for use in narrow necked containers such as two-liter bottles. For this I used ordinary white glue. Getting a good seal all the way around requires some care in execution. Brown Kraft (butcher paper) may be used as well.
For coarse granular materials tightly woven fabrics might serve the purpose providing the seams were adequate.
Misc.Survivalism FAQs maintained by Alan T. Hagan, firstname.lastname@example.org
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