Turn seawater into drinking water?

Turn seawater into drinking water?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Clean fresh water is becoming harder to get hold of due to climate change [15] and unsustainable use of underground water [7]. In response, more and more communities are using seawater as a source of fresh water – this is achieved using a process called “desalination“ (see our last post) [11,14,15]. There are now thought to be over 15,900 desalination plants spread across 177 countries [15]! This is hugely useful for providing water for industry, watering crops, and of course for drinking [15]. But there must be downsides too, right?

Right. Desalination leaves a toxic by-product: brine [15]. For every liter of freshwater produced, another 1.5 liters of brine are made [1]. If this is released back into the ocean, it can harm wildlife [1]. We need to dispose of brine safely [1]. This can involve making new products: the salt and metals can be extracted from the liquid and sold on [1].

Whilst desalination can be done on a small scale by simply boiling seawater in a pan [14], doing it on a large scale is expensive and energy-intensive [13,14]: desalination is, on average, 2-4x more expensive than most other water sources [12]. We need to bring the price of the process down to make it affordable for low-income countries [1,4]. Scientists are investigating using nanotechnology [3] and bacteria to help desalinate water [2]!

Although desalination is far from a perfect technology, it will likely become increasingly important for providing fresh water as climate change progresses [5,15]. In some cases, however, we could prevent the need for desalination by better management of water sources in the first instance [6,8].


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