Water Scarcity Solutions on Tap

Boy drinks from a public pump in Balkh Province, Afghanistan, May 4, 2015 (Photo by Abbas Farzami / Rumi Consultancy / World Bank)


WASHINGTON, DC, August 13, 2018 (ENS) – “We have a water crisis, which is based on increasing population, urbanization and climate disruption. And there’s unsustainable use of our water,” said Argonne National Laboratory researcher Seth Darling. “Part of addressing this is through policy solutions, but we also need new, more energy-efficient and cost-effective technologies.”

Four billion people are facing “severe water scarcity” finds a 2016 study by Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

Boy drinks from a public pump in Balkh Province, Afghanistan, May 4, 2015 (Photo by Abbas Farzami / Rumi Consultancy / World Bank)

“We find that two-thirds of the global population live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least one month of the year. Nearly half of those people live in India and China,” say Mekonnen and Hoekstra. “Half a billion people in the world face severe water scarcity all year round.”

Authorities are seeking ways improve water access, building desalination plants, extracting groundwater from aquifers and reducing water leaks due to ageing infrastructure.

And now researchers are discovering innovative ways to clean water, desalinate water, even collect water on fog harps.

Darling’s new, comprehensive research paper describes some of the most advanced innovations that could improve access to clean water globally. It was released last month in the “Journal of Applied Physics,” published by the American Institute of Physics.

Darling’s focus is on understanding and controlling the interfaces between materials and water because interfaces are what determine the performance of technologies such as water quality sensors, filtration membranes and pipes.

Adsorption is one of the best mechanisms for cleaning water.

A sorbent is a material used to pick up liquids or gases. In the adsorption process, contaminants adhere to the surface of porous materials to maximize surface-to-volume ratio. Darling’s own labs are working on adsorbents to advance water treatment.

Abundant and inexpensive, highly porous activated carbon is the most extensively used adsorbent.

Zeolites and Membranes

Zeolites, a kind of rock that can trap water within, can trap whole molecules in their 3D crystalline cage structures, enabling them to selectively bind particular compounds from water-based solutions.

Stilbite, a zeolite mineral, on apophyllite, from India, June 4, 2008 (Photo by Bryant Olsen)

There are about 40 naturally occurring zeolites, formed in both volcanic and sedimentary rocks, says the U.S. Geological Survey. Around 150 more artificial, synthetic zeolites have been designed for specific purposes, such as laundry detergent.

To meet the demand for green chemistry and sustainable development, much research has been devoted to the design and synthesis of advanced adsorbent nanomaterials such as polymer-based sorbents for efficient adsorption, separation and purification.

“We will continue to rely on these proven technologies,” Darling said. “But there is also a pressing need for sorbents that are more effective and energy-efficient.”

Engineered porous membranes can help recover freshwater from heavily polluted groundwater and seawater, which is a critical need in developing countries and arid environments like the Arabian Peninsula.

Conventional water desalination processes rely on polymer membranes. Yet, unless these membranes achieve very good salt rejection, they can fall short of the needed high freshwater flux.

Now, Zhiping Lai and colleagues from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have developed carbon-composite membranes that consist of a network of carbon fibers deposited on a porous, hollow ceramic tube.

Lai calls these membranes, “the first that can be used in all three membrane-based desalination processes, namely membrane distillation, reverse osmosis and forward osmosis.”

desal plant
Desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, the largest and most technologically advanced seawater desalination plant in the United States, produced enough high-quality, water from the Pacific Ocean to meet 10 percent of the region’s demand. Feb. 13, 2017 (Photo by vanderhe1)

These carbon-composite membranes can simultaneously reject all the salt and let large quantities of freshwater pass through their nanoscopic pores while consuming little energy. The water fluxes are up to 20 times higher than for commercial membranes.

“Water evaporates from the salt water and quickly passes through the carbon gap before condensing at the freshwater side. Thanks to the excellent thermal conductivity of carbon fibers, most of the energy can be recovered, which reduces energy consumption by more than 80 percent,” explains Lai.

Reusability is a critical characteristic for sorbent materials; it can reduce costs and increase the sustainability of a treatment process. Polymeric foam sponges are promising candidates for this approach.

Seth Darling and the Oleo Sponge

Darling, who serves as director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering at Argonne National Lab, is heading a group that created the Oleo Sponge, which can soak up 90 times its weight in oil throughout the entire water column.

To create the Oleo Sponge, a patent-pending technology, the researchers implemented a technique called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS). Using SIS, they grew metal oxide within the foam fibers to transform common polyurethane foam, found in seat cushions, into an oil adsorbent.

Oleo sponge
A team of Argonne National Lab researchers successfully tested the Oleo Sponge off the coast of Southern California in April 2018. (Photo by ANL)

The metal oxide serves as the glue to which the oil-loving molecules attach.

The Oleo Sponge is reusable; you simply wring the reclaimed oil into a holding tank. This cuts waste resulting from the clean-up process and enables a small amount of adsorbent to mitigate enormous spills.

The technology is the first and only option to adsorb oil and other petroleum products below the water surface. Current industry-standard technologies only address the surface.

Oleo Sponge is environmentally friendly, doing no harm to sea life, animals or the larger environment, a key advantage when compared with chemical dispersants or burning techniques that are used today.

“This technology is so important because, despite the industry’s best intentions, oil spills continue to happen, and existing cleanup methods are surprisingly inadequate,” said Darling.

“This technology has so many applications,” Darling said. “We are excited about the opportunities for other environmental remediation applications and beyond, which makes us that much more motivated to keep working on it.”

Researchers are also designing next-generation sorbents that have higher specificity – more binding power to target individual pollutants. Ideally, researchers could tailor the properties of interfaces to adsorb challenging water contaminants like nutrients and heavy metals.

Harvesting Water From Fog

Installing giant nets along hillsides and mountaintops to catch water out of thin air sounds more like fiction than science. But the technique has become an important avenue to clean water for many who live in arid and semi-arid climates.

A passive, durable, and effective method of water collection, fog harvesting consists of catching the microscopic droplets of water suspended in the wind that make up fog.

Fog nets have been in use since the 1980s and can yield clean water in any area that experiences frequent, moving fog. Fog harvesting has gained acceptance in areas of Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and California.

As wind moves the fog’s microscopic water droplets through the nets, some get caught on the net’s suspended wires. These droplets gather and merge until they have enough weight to travel down the nets and settle into collection troughs below. In some of the largest fog harvesting projects, these nets collect an average of 6,000 liters of water each day.

Now an interdisciplinary research team at Virginia Tech has improved the traditional design of fog nets to triple their collection capacity.

Published in “ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces,” the team’s research demonstrates how a vertical array of parallel wires can change the forecast for fog harvesters. In a design the researchers have called the “fog harp,” these vertical wires shed tiny water droplets faster and more efficiently than the traditional mesh netting used in fog nets.

“From a design point of view, I’ve always found it somewhat magical that you can essentially use something that looks like screen door mesh to translate fog into drinking water,” said Brook Kennedy, associate professor of industrial design in the Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies and one of the study’s co-authors. “But these parallel wire arrays are really the fog harp’s special ingredient.”

Kennedy, who specializes in biomimetic design, found his inspiration for the fog harp in nature.

“On average, coastal redwoods rely on fog drip for about one-third of their water intake,” he said. “These sequoia trees that live along the California coast have evolved over long periods of time to take advantage of that foggy climate. Their needles, like those of a traditional pine tree, are organized in a type of linear array. You don’t see cross meshes.”


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