MIT scientists build briefcase-sized machine to turn saltwater into drinking water

A new company called Nona Technologies says the device is the “future of water”

Abe Asher
Tuesday 13 September 2022 20:10 BST
California unveils historic water restrictions over drought
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A team of researchers based at MIT has developed a new, portable desalination device that could give people the ability to make saltwater drinkable.

The researchers, led by Dr Jongyoon Han, a professor of electrical engineering, computer science, and biological engineering, began working on a small-scale desalination device as many as ten years ago. Last year, on Boston’s Carson Beach, they realised they’d achieved something significant.

It was on that beach, Fortune reports, that researchers at MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics ran a glass of seawater through their desalination device before Junghyo Yoon drank it and gave a thumbs up. The water they produced exceeded World Health Organization quality guidelines.

Now, Yoon and Bruce Crawford have founded Nona Technologies with the assistance of a $100,000 grant recieved for winning the university’s entreprenuership competition to commercialise the desalination device and, they hope, establish it as “the future of water.”

The stakes are high. As climate change and oil production threatens sources of fresh, drinkable water around the world, the potential to desalinate saltwater on a wider scale could have significant implications for the survival of humanity — particularly in drought-hit or remote areas that are alrady struggling with freshwater access.

The concept of saltwater desalination is not new — California already has a number of large-scale facilities dedicated to the process — but smaller-scale, commercial desalination has, to this point, been a complicated process.

Mr Yoon told MIT News in April that portable desalination units typically require high pressure pumps to push salt water through the necessary filters, compromising the energy efficiency of the device. However, that’s not true with the new device, which does not rely on high pressure pumps and only requires as much power as a cell phone charger to operate.

Instead of using pumps, the MIT device relies on a process called ion concentration polarization in which an electrical field is applied to membranes placed around the water that can repel positively and negatively charged particles like salt as they flow by. The device also then uses a second process called electrodialysis to remove any remaining salt from the water that passes through it.

As of April, Mr Yoon said that his team was focused on “pushing our research to scale up that production rate.”

That means focusing on the user infrastructure of the device, which cannot be overly complicated in order for people to want to use it. If the device can hold up over time and be widely disseminated, its backers believe it could help humans survive in difficult conditions and reduce the need for things like water bottles and fossil fuel water generation.

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