Humans may never have to worry about the supply of fresh water again. The University of Texas at Austin reports that some of the university’s scientists have found a new way to desalinate sea water, potentially easing concerns over one of the crises facing human civilization we’ve been told is just around the bend:
The new method requires so little energy that it can run on a store-bought battery. The process evades the problems confronting current desalination methods by eliminating the need for a membrane and by separating salt from water at a microscale [...]
To achieve desalination, the researchers apply a small voltage (3.0 volts) to a plastic chip filled with seawater. The chip contains a microchannel with two branches. At the junction of the channel an embedded electrode neutralizes some of the chloride ions in seawater to create an “ion depletion zone” that increases the local electric field compared with the rest of the channel. This change in the electric field is sufficient to redirect salts into one branch, allowing desalinated water to pass through the other branch.
This new method isn’t fully proven yet: so far, the scientists involved have used the tech to reach 25 percent desalination and they need to reach 99 percent for it to become usable. And there are some questions about the amount of energy this process would take. But even if this particular tech peters out, sooner or later someone will invent a comparable technology that succeeds at the same goal. Indeed, other companies are already at work on desalination products of their own.
One of the biggest feeders of Malthusian fears in recent years has been the body of literature predicting the threat to our fresh water supply. Book after book after book has described the water crisis facing the planet. History has shown that human ingenuity has allowed us to overcome challenges thrown at us by geography, the elements, and alleged overpopulation. Could it be that this time it may be no different?
[Image of African Well from Hector Conesa / Shutterstock]