This cheap, new water-cleaning technique may transform life in developing countries

Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
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For the 1.1 billion people around the globe lacking access to clean drinking water, the solutions on offer are often too expensive. Researchers at Alexandria University in Egypt have devised a method aimed at solving that problem.

Desalination, often prescribed in coastal areas as a way to filter seawater into clean water, is one of the costlier methods. (Not even California can afford desalination to respond to its drought.) Combining their expertise in chemical engineering, agricultural and biosystems engineering, and oceanography, Mona Naim, Mahmoud Elewa, Ahmed El-Shafei, and Abeer Moneer say they have developed a low-cost desalination technique that can filter saltwater in just minutes.

Their findings, published last month in the journal Water Science and Technology, involve using special synthetic membranes to suck up salt particles from dirty water, allowing it to then be vaporized and condensed into clean water. The researchers describe these membranes as easily made in any lab with cheap and locally available ingredients.

In addition, the process of filtering and vaporizing—called pervaporation—doesn’t require electricity, offering a significant cost reduction from traditionally energy-sucking desalination techniques like reverse osmosis.

The process would desalinate water and remove even harsh contamination like sewage, according to the research. To test the solution commercially, large sheets of the artificial membrane would need to be produced, cut into swathes, and used in large bodies of water. If that pans out at the low level of cost predicted, poor areas might finally be granted what many consider a basic human right.