A series of plates and tubes sits in a tank of water. The plates are square with what looks to be a white coating.

Desalinating Water With The Sun

Getting fresh water from salt water can be difficult to do at any kind of scale. Researchers have developed a new method of desalinating water that significantly reduces its cost. [via Electrek]

By mimicking the thermohaline circulation of the ocean, the researchers from MIT and Shanghai Jiao Tong University were able to solve one of the primary issues with desalination systems, salt fouling. Using a series of evaporator/condenser stages, the seawater is separated into freshwater and salt using heat from the sun.

Evaporating water to separate it from salt isn’t new, but the researchers took it a step further by tilting the whole contraption and introducing a series of tubes to help move the water along and create eddy currents. These currents help the denser, saltier water move off of the apparatus and down deeper into the fluid where the salt doesn’t cause an issue with the device’s operation. The device should have a relatively long lifetime since it has no moving parts and doesn’t require any electricity to operate.

The researchers believe a small, suitcase-sized device could produce water for a family for less than the cost of tap water in the US. The (paywalled) paper is available from Joule.

If you’re curious about other drinking water hacks, check out this post on Re-Imagining the Water Supply or this previous work by the same researchers.

Passive Desalination Discovers How To Avoid Salt-Clogging

Saltwater is plentiful, but no good for drinking. Desalinization is the obvious solution, but a big problem isn’t taking the salt out, it’s where all that leftover salt goes. Excess salt accumulates, crystallizes, collects, and clogs a system. Dealing with this means maintenance, which means higher costs, which ultimately limits scalability.

The good news is that engineers at MIT and in China have succeeded in creating a desalination system that avoids this problem by intrinsically flushing accumulated salt as it is created, keeping the system clean. And what’s more, the whole thing is both scalable and entirely passive. The required energy all comes from gravity and the sun’s heat.

To do this, the device is constructed in such a way that it mimics the thermohaline circulation of the ocean on a small scale. This is a process in which temperature and density differentials drive a constant circulation and exchange. In the team’s system, this ultimately flushes concentrations of salt out of the system before it has a chance to collect.

The entirely passive nature of the device, its scalability, and the fact that it could desalinate water without accumulating salt for years means an extremely low cost to operate. The operating principle makes sense, but of course, it is careful engineering that shows it is actually possible. We have seen projects leveraging the passive heating and circulation of water before, but this is a whole new angle on letting the sun do the work.

Don’t Be Salty: How To Make Desalination Work In Tomorrow’s World

Although water is often scarce for human consumption and agriculture, this planet is three-quarters covered by the stuff. The problem is getting the salt out, and this is normally done by the Earth’s water cycle, which produces rain and similar phenomena that replenish the amount of fresh water. Roughly 3% of the water on Earth is fresh water, of which a fraction is potable water.

Over the past decades, the use of desalination has increased year over year, particularly in nations like Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but parched United States states such as California are increasingly looking into desalination technologies. The obvious obstacles that desalination faces – regardless of the exact technology used – involve the energy required to run these systems, and the final cost of the produced potable water relative to importing it from elsewhere.

Other issues that crop up with desalination include the environmental impact, especially from the brine waste and conceivably marine life sucked into the intake pipes. As the need for desalination increases, what are the available options to reduce the power needs and environmental impact?

Continue reading “Don’t Be Salty: How To Make Desalination Work In Tomorrow’s World”

This $4 Desalination Device Provides Drinking Water For The Whole Family

Researchers at MIT and in China have improved the old-fashioned solar still with a new inexpensive device that harnesses the sun to remove salt from water. Traditionally, these kinds of systems use a wick to draw water, but once the wick becomes fouled with salt, the device needs cleaning or other maintenance. Not exactly what you want in a survival situation. You can read the paper in Nature if you want more details.

The key to this new technique is black paint and polyurethane with 2.5-millimeter holes drilled in it. The idea is that warmer water above the insulating medium causes the salt to concentrate in the cooler water beneath the insulator allowing efficient vaporization of the water.  As the water evaporates, it causes the salt concentration at the top to rise, which then sinks due to the higher density and lower-concentration salt water rises to the top to evaporate.

Because the materials are commonplace, the team says a one-meter-square system costs about $4 to produce. A system that size could provide a family’s daily drinking water.

So far, the prototype system has worked in the lab for at least a week without accumulating salt. The next challenge is to scale it to something more practical, but due to the low cost and simplicity of the system, it seems it would be easy enough to make that happen or to reproduce the device for your own testing.

Desalination is a problem you can approach from many different angles. You can also harvest clean water from fog, something else that started at MIT.

Graphene Desalinates Sea Water

Even though the majority of the Earth is covered in water, a surprising number of people around the world don’t have easy access to clean drinking water. The oceans of course are full of salt, and it is difficult to filter that salt out. Researchers at the University of Manchester have found a way to improve a graphene-based filter mechanism that could help convert sea water to potable water.

Pure graphene can do the job, but it is difficult to manufacture in commercial quantities. In addition, the membrane requires the creation of tiny holes, further complicating the production. The new method uses graphene oxide, which is very simple to make and deploy.

Continue reading “Graphene Desalinates Sea Water”