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Image: A woman sitting by the sea, drinking water out of a water bottle.

New Portable Device Makes Seawater Drinkable On The Go

This article by Bonnie Riva Ras originally appeared on Goodnet.

Water equals life. This is true for people, animals, and plants. And while water is plentiful in some locations, this is not the case all over the world.  Now, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge may have developed a way  to change that.

Even though water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, not all of it is potable. In fact, less than three percent is actually freshwater, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation. Most of the water is contained in the oceans and must be desalinated to use. Researchers from MIT have developed a suitcase-sized desalination device, powered by a small portable solar panel that can be used in remote places to produce clean drinking water.

Image: A woman sitting by the sea, drinking water out of a water bottle.
Source: Unsplash

The research that was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology is now in the prototype stage but it is showing great promise due to its ease of use.

Clean Water at the Push of a Button

The new desalination device produces water that actually exceeds the World Health Organization standards, just by pushing a button, according to a MIT press release. There are no filters required, the device uses electrical power to remove salt and other particles – including bacteria and viruses –  from the saltwater. This reduces the need for constant maintenance.

Most commercially available portable desalination units use filters that require high-pressure pumps to push the water which makes them bulkier and less energy efficient. The filter-less MIT device will allow it to be used in remote or resource-limited places like small islands, ships, and even for emergency use.

The device took years to develop. “This is really the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We worked for years on the physics behind individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, that was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me,” Jongyoon Han, the senior author of the study and a  professor of electrical engineering, computer science and of biological engineering, as well as a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics  said in the press release.

After running tests in the lab with water that had different salinity and particles, it was ready to be beach tested at Boston’s Carson Beach. The device produced drinkable water in just half an hour.

“It was successful even in its first run, which was quite exciting and surprising. But I think the main reason we were successful is the accumulation of all these little advances that we made along the way,” Han said.

Practical and Affordable

The new desalination unit needs less power than a cell phone charger, reported Fast Company, and works using two types of electrical fields to filter the saltwater. But best of all, it was designed to be used by ordinary people and not engineers. In fact, the device only has three buttons, one to power the device, one to start it, and one to stop it.

What this means, is that the portable unit can be used in places with limited resources. Now, the cost is still too high, but Yoon hopes that it can be reduced to around $1,500 which would make it affordable for NGOs.

The researchers are still working on a final design that could utilize cheaper materials and a new prototype could be ready by the end of 2022. This small but mighty desalination unit may be the key to bringing safe water to a thirsty world.

– Goodnet

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Published: July 29, 2022

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