Graphene: The Water Filter That Could Save the World

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In a world where the unreported can seem to be only the hidden atrocities, corruption and a whole range of ongoing conflicts, it’s important to remember that there are positives out there. One of these unreported positives is the development going on with a “miracle” material called Graphene.

Graphene has the potential to tackle, and maybe irradicate completely, the issue of water scarcity, a problem that the UN predicts affects over 40% of the world’s population. Graphene was first discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester and further investigation into its properties saw researchers at the University win the Nobel Prize for physics in 2010. Graphene itself consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a particular manner, a seemingly simple structure but one that has huge potential applications across a range of fields of science.

The application that holds possibly the greatest positive impact for this world is its ability to filter salt water, making it drinkable. If this can be done on a large scale, the consequences could be huge. It is thought that the next wars will be fought over water, to some extent conflicts in the Middle East including the Israel-Palestine conflict are already driven, or at least exacerbated, by the lack of drinkable water in the region. With the world’s water usage increasing and its aquifers becoming more and more polluted, our sources for fresh water could soon run dry.

97% of the world’s water is stored as un-drinkable salty sea water. The process of desalinisation is currently the only viable way to turn this saltwater into fresh water but the process is very expensive and energy intensive. However, if this graphene based water filter can be developed so it can be work and be produced on large scales as well as being relatively cheap, people all around the world would be able to utilise the ocean’s reserves for their daily lives.

Although much research is still needed Professor Rahul Nair from the University of Manchester highlights that this isn’t science fiction and that this technology can be developed successfully:

“This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.”

There are a number of issues, too many to realistically list here, but here are two of the main ones. First of all, the safety of using any new material that is involved in producing something that is for human consumption is paramount. They don’t want to be distributing a filter that could be making the water more toxic than it was before! Secondly, the graphene filter works because of its 1 nanometre (0.000000001 metres) wide holes that are just big enough to allow water molecules through and not the salt molecules. However, when submerged in water, these holes swell and become larger, allowing small salt molecules through also, making the filter ineffective. A possible solution to this issue is to use ‘glue’ of sorts to fix the holes in place, and not allow any disfiguration to occur.

Despite these problems, everyone has one goal in mind that Ram Devanathan, from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, USA sums up perfectly here:

“The ultimate goal is to create a filtration device that will produce potable water from seawater or wastewater with minimal energy input.”

To put it in even more simple terms, a world where everyone has access to clean fresh water and it is looking like it will very much be possible.

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