Desalination gets a graphene boost


With the intensifying drought in California, the state has accelerated the construction of desalination plants. Yet due to high construction and operating costs, as well as environmental concerns, we’re not likely to see reclaimed seawater represent more than a small fraction of America’s clean water reserves for some time to come.

Aside from other costs, the immense amounts of energy required to make clean water from seawater continues to make desalination a niche solution in most parts of the world.

When Jeffrey Grossman, a professor at MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), began looking into whether new materials might reduce the cost of desalination, he was surprised to find how little research and development money was being applied to the problem.

“A billion people around the world lack regular access to clean water, and that’s expected to more than double in the next 25 years,” Grossman says. “Desalinated water costs five to 10 times more than regular municipal water, yet we’re not investing nearly enough money into research. If we don’t have clean energy we’re in serious trouble, but if we don’t have water we die.”

At the Grossman Group, which explores the development of new materials to address clean energy and water problems, a possible solution may be at hand. Grossman’s lab has demonstrated strong results showing that new filters made from graphene could greatly improve the energy efficiency of desalination plants while potentially reducing other costs as well.

Graphene, which results from slicing off an atom-thick layer of graphite, is increasingly emerging as something of a wonder material. The Grossman Group, for example, is also looking into using it as a cheaper alternative to silicon for making solar cells.

“It’s never been a more exciting time to be a materials scientist,” says Grossman. “When you look at clean tech or water filtration, you find that the energy conversion bottleneck stems from the material.

“We can now design materials pretty much all the way down to the scale of the atom in almost any way we want, tailoring materials in ways that were previously impossible. There’s a convergence emerging in which we are facing enormously pressing problems that can only be solved by developing new materials.”

First isolated in 2003, graphene has different electrical, optical, and mechanical properties than graphite. “It’s stronger than steel, and it has unique sieving properties,” Grossman says.

At only an atom thick, there’s far less friction loss when you push seawater through a perforated graphene filter compared with the polyamide plastic filters that have been used for the last 50 years, he says.

“We have shown that perforated graphene filters can handle the water pressures of desalination plants while offering hundreds of times better permeability,” Grossman explains. “The process of pumping seawater through filters represents about half the operating costs of a desalination plant. With graphene, we could use up to 50% less energy.”

Another advantage is that graphene filters don’t become fouled with bio-growth at nearly the rate that occurs with polyamide filters. Desalination plants often run at reduced efficiency due to the need to frequently clean the filters.

In addition, the chlorine used to clean the filters reduces the structural integrity of the polyamide, requiring frequent replacement. By comparison, graphene is resistant to the damaging effects of chlorine.

According to Grossman, you could easily replace polyamide filters with graphene filters in existing plants. Like polyamide filters, graphene filters can be mounted on robust polysulfone supports, which have larger holes that sieve out particulates.

Yet challenges remain in bringing down costs. The Grossman Group has made good progress in creating high volumes of graphene at a reasonably low cost. A more serious challenge, however, is cost-effectively poking uniform holes in the graphene in a highly scalable manner.

“A typical plant has tens of thousands of membranes, configured in two-meter long tubes, each of which has 40 square meters of rolled up active membrane,” Grossman says. “We have to match that volume at the same cost, or it’s a nonstarter.”

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