Desalination may quench a water crisis
The Future. As temperatures rise and water becomes even more scarce, scaling the process of desalinating water — the process of extracting salt from saline water to make it drinkable — could save lives. But since it requires so much energy to accomplish, new methods of powering desalination may be just as important as desalination itself — a potentially complicated issue for California, which is currently facing a strained power grid amid a record drought.
With 1.1 billion people worldwide lacking access to clean water, Fast Company breaks down how water desalination may be key to surviving an expanding water crisis.
There’s two ways to do it:
- Thermal desalination: Heating water to turn it into a vapor that condenses on pipes. Very popular method in the Middle East.
- Membrane desalination (aka reverse osmosis): Forcing saline water through a semipermeable membrane to separate the salt and water.
Desalination is already very popular, providing the United Arab Emirates with 42% of its water — and it is gaining ground in China, South America, and the US (especially California, which is facing severe drought).
Power through it
But desalination takes a lot of energy, and it’s costly, producing an ocean-damaging byproduct called brine. So scientists and environmental engineers are working on innovations to address both issues.
- Several countries are working on developing stronger membranes, so they don’t have to be replaced as often.
- Saudi Arabia is working on a thermal desalination plant, which would use sustainable energy (solar) and allow for byproducts to just be evaporated.
- There are new breakthroughs in turning brine into a chemical disinfectant that can be used in place of chlorine.
Desalinating water through a process of forward osmosis is also in development, which would allow water to be treated with less pressure and at lower temperatures (less energy needed all around).