A group of MIT scientists has developed a device that converts brackish seawater into safe drinking water at the touch of a button. This technology could be especially useful for those living in coastal areas like California, where droughts are being exacerbated by climate change.
According to a paper published on April 14 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the new desalination device (a term used to describe a machine that can remove salt from seawater) is about the size of a suitcase, weighs less than 10 kilograms, and uses less energy than a cell phone charger. At the touch of a button, it can automatically produce potable drinking water that meets or surpasses WHO water quality criteria.
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According to Junghyo Yoon, a research scientist at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics and co-author of the report, "even a kindergarten student can carry and utilize the desalination machine." "[Ease of use] was a major factor in the device's development."
Unlike standard desalination machines, the gadget does not use filters. Instead, it uses electric currents to zap the water, removing minerals like salt particles. It has a wide range of applications, according to Yoon, including being given to seaside towns, climate catastrophe refugees, or even doomsday preppers, due to its portability and absence of filters that need to be maintained.
"For more than ten years, my team and I have been working on desalination technology," Jongyoon Han, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science as well as biological engineering, told The Daily Beast. "We went through a lot of iterations with this technology before we got to a point where we could demonstrate a system."
The innovative gadget developed by Yoon and Han addresses a few difficulties that affect most currently available desalination devices. For one thing, pumping water through filters uses a lot of energy, so making a smaller, portable version is challenging. Instead, the MIT team's device uses a technique known as ion concentration polarization (ICP), which involves sending an electric field across membranes above and below a water channel. Charged particles and pollutants are repelled into a separate water channel and disposed. This enables the production of safe, drinkable water. "In the water flow, we provide an electric field, and the electricity helps remove particles like salt," Yoon explained. "That is the device's desalination process's core premise."
The researchers now intend to increase their device's production rate and usability by building on it. After all, the more water the device can produce at once, the more people would be able to consume safe and potable water. Yoon intends to build a company in the next years to develop a commercially viable desalination device based on ICP technology with the help of MIT.
Han, on the other hand, stated that his desalination operations are broader and more "long-term." He wants to look more closely at reverse osmosis (RO), a desalination method in which salt water is pushed through a membrane or filter to produce clean water. "That achieves good enough energy efficiency, but it has significant maintenance requirements and it only operates on a large scale, such as a big plant," Han explained, adding that it's an inefficient process for places like California, where "the water demand is always fluctuating" and where clean, potable water is currently in short supply.
"That flow doesn't work well with a RO plant's inflexible model of desalination," he explained. "As a result, I'm considering how we may use more flexible desalination technologies, such as ICP." That's a long-term direction in which I'm interested."
He also stated that he wants to address issues other than desalination, such as identifying and removing impurities in water, such as heavy metals and disease-causing microbes such as viruses and bacteria.
"Most of these contaminants have open charge, so we have the potential to remove a wide range of contaminants like lead and germs," Han explained. "We intend to engineer our system to eliminate industrial toxins in the future." Those are really interesting prospects."
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