Will Engineers Save the World?

Free access to clean and pure drinking water could soon be a reality for those in developing countries through innovative engineering.

Millions of people worldwide don’t have access to clean water

Water purification is a global problem, particularly within developing countries. A recent project from an international team of researchers has resulted in a method of water purification that uses membranes enhanced by plasma-treated carbon nanotubes.

780 million people around the world are currently without access to clean water, which shows how ground-breaking the development could prove to be. The study is said to be paving the way for the next generation of portable water purification devices.

Led by Associate Professor Hui Ying Yang from Singapore University of Technology and Design, the research team successfully showed that the new method of purification could remove contaminants, including brine, from water. Dr Zhaojun Han from The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research organisation (CSIRO), commented that the membranes could eventually form part of a tea pot sized device that would not only be inexpensive but rechargeable and more effective than current means of filtration.

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“Small portable purification devices are increasingly recognised as the best way to meet the needs of clean water,” he said in a statement. Dr Han went on to describe the process as being as simple as impure water going in one end, and clean, drinkable water coming out of the other.

How does it work?

 “Our study showed that carbon nanotube membranes were able to filter out ions of vastly different sizes – meaning they were able to remove salt, along with other impurities.” he said.

Fellow colleague Professor Ostrikov commented that the success of the developments was down in part to the ultralong nanotubes. The large surface lends itself to the process of filtration and has proven to be an ideal solution. In addition to this, the nanotubes are extremely versatile and can be modified to fit the exact requirements of the project through a localised nanoscale plasma treatment on the surface.

Innovation that saves lives

Dr Han admits that existing devices do already exist on the market – but not with the functionality that will be so critical to saving lives. “For people in remote locations, briny water can sometimes be the only available water source,” he said, “That’s why it’s important to not only be able to remove salts from the water, but to also be able to put it through a process of purification.”

The effectiveness of the method now means the research has been extended, which will allow for further investigation into the filtration properties of other nanomaterial. Graphene, for example, has similar properties to carbon nanotubes, but could be made stronger and denser.

The study ‘Carbon nanotube membranes with ultrahigh specific capacity for water desalination and purification’ is a collaborative work between Singapore University of Technology and Design, CSIRO, Massachusetts Institute (MIT), the University of Sydney, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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