The future of desalination may rest in nanotechnology

 Main Story, Nanotechnology

Roughly 70 per cent of the Earth is covered by water, yet fresh water at 1-2 per cent is a resource that is growing increasingly scarce as populations rise globally, pollution increases and climate and weather patterns change. Water desalination is a time consuming and costly endeavor when using the current methods, which usually involve reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis requires salt water to be forced through membranes by strong pumps.

These membranes filter out the salt but the pumps are subject to clogging and obviously require a constant flow of electricity to function. The key to improving this process and reducing the cost is to improve the performance of the membrane.

Many companies are working on membranes for desalination applications, but one notable example is California-based NanoH2O, a nanotechnology start-up funded by leading venture capital firms, Khosla Ventures and Oak Investment Partners, are developing and commercialising a new membrane material for reverse osmosis based on technology developed by UCLA’s Eric Hoek. NanoH2O added nano-particles to the synthesis of the membrane that allows desalination systems to have much lower operating pressures or much higher throughput, which translates into less energy consumption or greater productivity.

According to the company, municipal and industrial plants optimised for NanoH2O’s membranes can expect up to a 20 per cent reduction in energy consumption, or a 70 per cent increase in water production, or a 40 per cent smaller plant footprint.