A fresh way to take the salt out of seawater
THERE is a lot of water on Earth, but more than 97% of it is salty and over half of the remainder is frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Meanwhile, around a fifth of the world’s population suffers from a shortage of drinking water and that fraction is expected to grow. One answer is desalination—but it is an expensive answer because it requires a lot of energy. Now, though, a pair of Canadian engineers have come up with an ingenious way of using the heat of the sun to drive the process. Such heat, in many places that have a shortage of fresh water, is one thing that is in abundant supply.
Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi met at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, while completing their MBAs. Their company, Saltworks Technologies, has set up a test plant beside the sea in Vancouver and will open for business in November.
Existing desalination plants work in one of two ways. Some distil seawater by heating it up to evaporate part of it. They then condense the vapour—a process that requires electricity. The other plants use reverse osmosis. This employs high-pressure pumps to force the water from brine through a membrane that is impermeable to salt. That, too, needs electricity. Even the best reverse-osmosis plants require 3.7 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy to produce 1,000 litres of drinking water.
Mr Sparrow and Mr Zoshi, by contrast, reckon they can produce that much fresh water with less than 1 kWh of electricity, and no other paid-for source of power is needed. Their process is fuelled by concentration gradients of salinity between different vessels of brine. These different salinities are brought about by evaporation.
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