How To Bring Fresh Water To Remote Communities
Researchers at the University of Bath (UK) have developed a revolutionary desalination process that has the potential to be operated in mobile, solar-powered units. The process is low cost, low energy and low maintenance, and has the potential to provide safe water to communities in remote and disaster-struck areas where fresh water is in short supply.
Developed by the university’s Water Innovation and Research Centre in partnership with Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University and the University of Johannesburg, the prototype desalination unit is a 3D-printed system with two internal chambers designed to extract and/or accumulate salt. When power is applied, salt cations (positively charged ions) and salt anions (negatively charged ions) flow between chambers through arrays of micro-holes in a thin synthetic membrane. The flow can only happen in one direction thanks to a mechanism that has parallels in mobile-phone technology. As a result of this one-way flow, salt is pumped out of seawater. This contrasts with the classical desalination process, where water rather than salt is pumped through a membrane.
Desalination, which turns seawater into fresh water, has become an essential process for providing drinking and irrigation water where freshwater is scarce. Traditionally, it has been an energy-intensive process carried out in large industrial plants.
CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENJOY THE VIDEO
“There are times when it would be enormously beneficial to install small, solar-powered desalination units to service a small number of households. Large industrial water plants are essential to 21st Century living, but they are of no help when you’re living in a remote location where drinking water is scarce, or where there is a coastal catastrophe that wipes out the fresh water supply,” said Professor Frank Marken from the Department of Chemistry
The Bath desalination system is based on ‘ionics’, where a cationic diode (a negatively charged, semi-permeable membrane studded with microscopic pores) is combined with an anionic resistor (a device that only allows the flow of negative ions when power is applied).
“This amounts to a whole new process for removing salt from water,”explained Prof Marken. “We are the first people to use tiny micron-sized diodes in a desalination prototype.”
He added: “This is a low-energy system with no moving parts. Other systems use enormous pressures to push the water through nano-pores, but we only remove the salts. Most intriguingly, the external pumps and switches can be replaced by microscopic processes inside the membrane – a little bit like biological membranes work.”