UK scientists develop graphene desalination tech

Graphene has many potentially revolutionary properties. Image courtesy of the University of Manchester
Graphene oxide membranes could revolutionize water desalination. Image courtesy of the University of Manchester.

Scientists in the UK have developed a new kind of filter for desalination plants using the versatile carbon allotrope known as 'graphene'.

The team of the scientists from the University of Manchester reported that graphene oxide could be used to effectively filter out salt from seawater.

Graphene itself is a flat lattice of carbon just one atom thick, which has exceptional electric and conductive properties. The material, according to researchers, has the potential to revolutionize batteries, electronics, and several other kinds of devices.

Nonetheless, pure graphene remains difficult and expensive to produce, meaning that its use has so far not been widespread.

The University of Manchester team, however, managed to discover a way to use easier-to-produce graphene oxide to filter seawater.

“Realisation of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology,” said Prof. Rahul Nair from the University of Manchester.

“We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve size.”

Importantly, their filter is significantly more efficient than those already on the market, meaning that a desalination plan utilizing their technology would use less energy.

This could subsequently reduce the cost of desalination in general and thus lower the cost of water in countries which depend on the technology.

Into the future coastal cities in certain regions as expected to rely more heavily on desalination as climate change begins to reduce freshwater rainfall.

Specifically, by 2025 the UN expects that approximately 14% of the world’s population will be experiencing what it calls ‘water scarcity’.

Given this vast potential market, the next step for the researchers will be working with industrial partners in order to test the membrane in real world conditions.

The main piece of information which needs to be ascertained is whether the membrane will be able to hold up to repeat use, and not suffer from physical or chemical wear and tear.

Beyond water filtration, the University of Manchester team also posits that similar graphene membranes could also be used for other kinds of filtration, such as removing pollutants from power plant emissions.