A new Yale University study argues that seawater desalination should play an important role in helping combat worldwide fresh water shortages – once conservation, reuse and other methods have been exhausted – and provides insight into how desalination technology can be made more affordable and energy efficient.
"The globe's oceans are a virtually inexhaustible source of water, but the process of removing its salt is expensive and energy intensive," said Menachem Elimelech, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale and lead author of the study, which appears in the Aug. 5 issue of the journal Science.
Reverse osmosis – forcing seawater through a membrane that filters out the salt – is the leading method for seawater desalination in the world today. For years, scientists have focused on increasing the membrane's water flux using novel materials, such as carbon nanotubes, to reduce the amount of energy required to push water through it.
In the new study, Elimelech and William Phillip, now at the University of Notre Dame, demonstrate that reverse osmosis requires a minimum amount of energy that cannot be overcome, and that current technology is already starting to approach that limit. Instead of higher water flux membranes, Elimelech and Phillip suggest that the real gains in efficiency can be made during the pre- and post-treatment stages of desalination.
Seawater contains naturally occurring organic and particulate matter that must be filtered out before it passes through the membrane that removes the salt. Chemical agents are added to the water to clean it and help coagulate this matter for easier removal during a pre-treatment stage. But if a membrane didn't build up organic matter on its surface, most if not all pre-treatment could be avoided, according to the scientist's findings.
In addition, Elimelech and Phillip calculate that a membrane capable of filtering out boron and chloride would result in substantial energy and cost savings. Seventy percent of the world's water is used in agriculture, but water containing even low levels of boron and chloride – minerals that naturally occur in seawater – cannot be used for these purposes. Instead of removing them during a separate post-treatment stage, the scientists believe a membrane could be developed that would filter them more efficiently at the same time as the salt is removed.
Elimelech cautions that desalination should only be considered a last resort in the effort to provide fresh water to the world's populations and suggests that long-term research is needed to determine the impact of seawater desalination on the aquatic environment, but believes that desalination has a major role to play now and in the future.
"All of this will require new materials and new chemistry, but we believe this is where we should focus our efforts going forward," Elimelech said. "The problem of water shortage is only going to get worse, and we need to be ready to meet the challenge with improved, sustainable technology."
Suzanne Taylor Muzzin | EurekAlert!
Safeguarding sustainability through forest certification mapping
27.06.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Dune ecosystem modelling
26.06.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
Strong light-matter coupling in these semiconducting tubes may hold the key to electrically pumped lasers
Light-matter quasi-particles can be generated electrically in semiconducting carbon nanotubes. Material scientists and physicists from Heidelberg University...
Fraunhofer IPA has developed a proximity sensor made from silicone and carbon nanotubes (CNT) which detects objects and determines their position. The materials and printing process used mean that the sensor is extremely flexible, economical and can be used for large surfaces. Industry and research partners can use and further develop this innovation straight away.
At first glance, the proximity sensor appears to be nothing special: a thin, elastic layer of silicone onto which black square surfaces are printed, but these...
3-D shape acquisition using water displacement as the shape sensor for the reconstruction of complex objects
A global team of computer scientists and engineers have developed an innovative technique that more completely reconstructs challenging 3D objects. An ancient...
Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.
For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...
What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.
To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...
26.07.2017 | Event News
21.07.2017 | Event News
19.07.2017 | Event News
26.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
26.07.2017 | Life Sciences
26.07.2017 | Earth Sciences