Apr 042010
 
Close-up of tap water
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A new approach to desalination being developed by researchers at MIT and in Korea could lead to small, portable desalination units that could be powered by solar cells or batteries and could deliver enough fresh water to supply the needs of a family or small village. As an added bonus, the system would also remove many contaminants, viruses and bacteria at the same time.

The new approach, called ion concentration polarization, is described in a paper by Postdoctoral Associate Sung Jae Kim and Associate Professor Jongyoon Han, both in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and colleagues in Korea.

The system works at a microscopic scale, using fabrication methods developed for microfluidics devices — similar to the manufacture of microchips, but using materials such as silicone (synthetic rubber). Each individual device would only process minute amounts of water, but a large number of them — the researchers envision an array with 1,600 units fabricated on an 8-inch-diameter wafer — could produce about 15 liters of water per hour, enough to provide drinking water for several people. The whole unit could be self-contained and driven by gravity — salt water would be poured in at the top, and fresh water and concentrated brine collected from two outlets at the bottom.

That small size could actually be an advantage for some applications, Kim explains. For example, in an emergency situation like Haiti’s earthquake aftermath, the delivery infrastructure to get fresh water to the people who need it was largely lacking, so small, portable units that individuals could carry would have been especially useful.

So far, the researchers have successfully tested a single unit, using seawater they collected from a Massachusetts beach. The water was then deliberately contaminated with small plastic particles, protein and human blood. The unit removed more than 99 percent of the salt and other contaminants. “We clearly demonstrated that we can do it at the unit chip level,” says Kim.

While the amount of electricity required by this method is actually slightly more than for present large-scale methods such as reverse osmosis, there is no other method that can produce small-scale desalination with anywhere near this level of efficiency, the researchers say. If properly engineered, the proposed system would only use about as much power as a conventional lightbulb.

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