A new technology to take the salt out of salt water and deliver more drinkable water

Thu, 12/14/2017
Picture Credit: 
Steve Zylius / UC Irvine
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

What happens when you combine water, a common type of plastic and molecules that absorb light? You get a new technology that can convert sunlight into a specific type of electricity with the potential to remove salt from sea water more efficiently and cost effectively than competing solar-based technologies.

The idea of extracting salt from seawater is not new, nor are the reasons for it. Freshwater accounts for a very small fraction of all water on Earth – about three percent of the 70 percent that covers the planet, of which only one percent is easily accessible. Yet, without enough water supply we cannot support a population that continues to grow and is expected to reach more than 11 billion by 2100.

Complicating our ability to tackle this issue is the slow pace of invention. For scientist and Moore Inventor Fellow Shane Ardo, developing more efficient, cost-effective technologies to address the global water crisis is the burning issue. The good news for all of us is that Ardo, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, and his team of researchers, has advanced current solar-driven technologies for desalinating water. Results of his research were published in the journal, Joule.

What Ardo and his team of researchers demonstrated is the ability to take sunlight and convert it into electricity through ion motion. Rather than use traditional solar cells to generate electricity, like is done today with rooftop silicon-solar panels, Ardo's team used sunlight to directly drive ion transport. Ions are protons, hydroxides, sodium and chloride, the latter two of which are found in enormous quantities in the ocean. It is the generation of ionic power that directly drives the desalination of salt water. Ardo explains how this works by using a few common, inexpensive materials.

A sustainable, solar-energy-conversion technology like Ardo’s can be a game changer for clean water generation globally. His invention is a first step toward a more efficient, cost-effective simple way to produce potable water. And, it is an example of how a modest investment in early-career scientist-inventors, through programs like the Moore Inventor Fellows, can accelerate research for the benefit of society.