Accessibility to clean water is predicted to become increasingly more scarce over the coming decade in many parts of the world. With the earth’s rising temperatures thanks to climate change, some states in the U.S. like California, Arizona, and Colorado are worried about worsening droughts and longer wildfire seasons.
Due to this impending shortage, scientists around the world are looking for solutions to this problem. Recently, researchers at MIT believe that they have the answer by developing a portable desalination device powered by a smartphone.
Background: No Mo’ H2O
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans use around 82 gallons of water a day, costing families over $1,000 in yearly water bills. Around a third of these costs and 20% of the water used can be minimized with more efficient devices. Even just fixing leaky faucets can be significant, as the EPA estimates the water waste from leaks to be 900 billion gallons of water every year. These statistics have big consequences for countries overall. According to research done by Harvard University, nearly 50% of the 204 freshwater reservoirs in the U.S. may not be able to meet water demand by 2071. These statistics are slowly becoming a wake-up call for many Americans, as they have to shift their lifestyle to use less water.
Analysis: Fixing the Water Shortage
Many scientists are researching desalination, the process of turning seawater into freshwater, as a way to stop the water shortage. With the oceans expanding from global warming, there is plenty of seawater to process. However, desalination is expensive. Reports claim that desalinated water costs five times as much as other freshwater harvesting processes. Desalination can also be detrimental to ocean biodiversity, as many oceanic creatures get trapped and killed in the desalination machines.
Thankfully, researchers at MIT are developing a portable desalination device that can cut down on the costs and environmental impact of desalination. To do this, the device uses a method with injects electricity into the seawater to remove bacteria and salt molecules. With this easy method, the device can be solar-powered. The researchers are hopeful about the impact this new device will have on global water storage. According to a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, Jongyoon Han: “This is the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We’ve worked for years on the physics behind the individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me.” The researchers developed their device to be controlled by a smartphone app. In testing their device, they found it could process around 0.3 liters of freshwater per hour directly from seawater.
Outlook: Scaling Up
With these successful results, the researchers are hoping to scale up their production of these devices. “Right now, we are pushing our research to scale up that production rate” explained research scientist Jungho Yoon. Should this device become more accessible and affordable, it may not only help with the global water shortages but could also make an impact on rising ocean levels, Yoon added: “This is definitely an exciting project and I am proud of the progress we have made so far, but there is still a lot of work to do.”
Kenna Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/