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Breakthrough may greatly improve the production of clean water

Breakthrough may greatly improve the production of clean water. In a new study led by the University of Texas at Austin, experts have had a breakthrough that may help produce clean drinking water at a lower cost. The researchers solved a complex problem that has baffled scientists for decades.

Desalination membranes remove salt and other chemicals from water, cleaning billions of gallons of water for agriculture. While the concept seems simple, the process of desalination is actually very complex and not well understood. 

In collaboration with DuPont Water Solutions, the researchers have solved an important aspect of this mystery, opening the door to reduce costs of clean water production.

The team discovered that desalination membranes are inconsistent in density and mass distribution, which limits their performance. This means that uniform density at the nanoscale is the key to increasing how much clean water these membranes can pump out.

“Reverse osmosis membranes are widely used for cleaning water, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them,” said study co-lead author Manish Kumar0. “We couldn’t really say how water moves through them, so all the improvements over the past 40 years have essentially been done in the dark.”

The efficiency of the membranes tested in the study increased by 30 to 40 percent. In other words, the membranes could clean more water while using significantly less energy, which could greatly expand access to clean water.

“Fresh water management is becoming a crucial challenge throughout the world,” said study co-lead author Professor Enrique Gomez. “Shortages, droughts – with increasing severe weather patterns, it is expected this problem will become even more significant. It’s critically important to have clean water availability, especially in low-resource areas.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and DuPont, which makes numerous desalination products.

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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