wired.com– For years, scientists have known that Mars has ice locked away within its rusty exterior. More elusive, though, is figuring out how much of that water is actually sloshing around in liquid form. No…
Researchers have developed a solar paint that can absorb water vapour and split it to generate hydrogen – the cleanest source of energy.
The paint contains a newly developed compound that acts like silica gel, which is used in sachets to absorb moisture and keep food, medicines and electronics fresh and dry.
But unlike silica gel, the new material, synthetic molybdenum-sulphide, also acts as a semi-conductor and catalyses the splitting of water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen.
Lead researcher Dr Torben Daeneke, from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: “We found that mixing the compound with titanium oxide particles leads to a sunlight-absorbing paint that produces hydrogen fuel from solar energy and moist air.
“Titanium oxide is the white pigment that is already commonly used in wall paint, meaning that the simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate.
“Our new development has a big range of advantages,” he said. “There’s no need for clean or filtered water to feed the system. Any place that has water vapour in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”
His colleague, Distinguished Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, said hydrogen was the cleanest source of energy and could be used in fuel cells as well as conventional combustion engines as an alternative to fossil fuels.
“This system can also be used in very dry but hot climates near oceans. The sea water is evaporated by the hot sunlight and the vapour can then be absorbed to produce fuel.
“This is an extraordinary concept – making fuel from the sun and water vapour in the air.”
More information: Torben Daeneke et al, Surface Water Dependent Properties of Sulfur-Rich Molybdenum Sulfides:
Electrolyteless Gas Phase Water Splitting, ACS Nano (2017). DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.7b01632
Provided by: RMIT University
Researchers create perfect nanoscrolls from graphene’s imperfect form.
Water filters of the future may be made from billions of tiny, graphene-based nanoscrolls. Each scroll, made by rolling up a single, atom-thick layer of graphene, could be tailored to trap specific molecules and pollutants in its tightly wound folds. Billions of these scrolls, stacked layer by layer, may produce a lightweight, durable, and highly selective water purification membrane.
But there’s a catch: Graphene does not come cheap. The material’s exceptional mechanical and chemical properties are due to its very regular, hexagonal structure, which resembles microscopic chicken wire. Scientists take great pains in keeping graphene in its pure, unblemished form, using processes that are expensive and time-consuming, and that severely limit graphene’s practical uses.
Seeking an alternative, a team from MIT and Harvard University is looking to graphene oxide — graphene’s much cheaper, imperfect form. Graphene oxide is graphene that is also covered with oxygen and hydrogen groups. The material is essentially what graphene becomes if it’s left to sit out in open air. The team fabricated nanoscrolls made from graphene oxide flakes and was able to control the dimensions of each nanoscroll, using both low- and high-frequency ultrasonic techniques. The scrolls have mechanical properties that are similar to graphene, and they can be made at a fraction of the cost, the researchers say.
“If you really want to make an engineering structure, at this point it’s not practical to use graphene,” says Itai Stein, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Graphene oxide is two to four orders of magnitude cheaper, and with our technique, we can tune the dimensions of these architectures and open a window to industry.”
Stein says graphene oxide nanoscrolls could also be used as ultralight chemical sensors, drug delivery vehicles, and hydrogen storage platforms, in addition to water filters. Stein and Carlo Amadei, a graduate student at Harvard University, have published their results in the journalNanoscale.
Getting away from crumpled graphene
The team’s paper originally grew out of an MIT class, 2.675 (Micro/Nano Engineering), taught by Rohit Karnik, associate professor of mechanical engineering. As part of their final project, Stein and Amadei teamed up to design nanoscrolls from graphene oxide. Amadei, as a member of Professor Chad Vecitis’ lab at Harvard University, had been working with graphene oxide for water purification applications, while Stein was experimenting with carbon nanotubes and other nanoscale architectures, as part of a group led by Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
The researchers’ graphene nano scroll research originated in this MIT classes 2.674 and 2.675 (Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory).
Video: Department of Mechanical Engineering
“Our initial idea was to make nanoscrolls for molecular adsorption,” Amadei says. “Compared to carbon nanotubes, which are closed structures, nanoscrolls are open spirals, so you have all this surface area available to manipulate.”
“And you can tune the separation of a nanoscroll’s layers, and do all sorts of neat things with graphene oxide that you can’t really do with nanotubes and graphene itself,” Stein adds.
When they looked at what had been done previously in this field, the students found that scientists had successfully produced nanoscrolls from graphene, though with very complicated processes to keep the material pure. A few groups had tried doing the same with graphene oxide, but their attempts were literally deflated.
“What was out there in the literature was more like crumpled graphene,” Stein says. “You can’t really see the conical nature. It’s not really clear what was made.”
Stein and Amadei first used a common technique called the Hummers’ method to separate graphite flakes into individual layers of graphene oxide. They then placed the graphene oxide flakes in solution and stimulated the flakes to curl into scrolls, using two similar approaches: a low-frequency tip-sonicator, and a high-frequency custom reactor.
The tip-sonicator is a probe made of piezoelectric material that shakes at a low, 20Hz frequency when voltage is applied. When placed in a solution, the tip-sonicator produces sound waves that stir up the surroundings, creating bubbles in the solution.
Similarly, the group’s reactor contains a piezoelectric component that is connected to a circuit. As voltage is applied, the reactor shakes — at a higher, 390 Hz frequency compared with the tip-sonicator — creating bubbles in the solution within the reactor.
Stein and Amadei applied both techniques to solutions of graphene oxide flakes and observed similar effects: The bubbles that were created in solution eventually collapsed, releasing energy that caused the flakes to spontaneously curl into scrolls. The researchers found they could tune the dimensions of the scrolls by varying the treatment duration and the frequency of the ultrasonic waves. Higher frequencies and shorter treatments did not lead to significant damage of the graphene oxide flakes and produced larger scrolls, while low frequencies and longer treatment times tended to cleave flakes apart and create smaller scrolls.
While the group’s initial experiments turned a relatively low number of flakes — about 10 percent — into scrolls, Stein says both techniques may be optimized to produce higher yields. If they can be scaled up, he says the techniques can be compatible with existing industrial processes, particularly for water purification.
“If you can make this in large scales and it’s cheap, you could make huge bulk samples of filters and throw them out in the water to remove all sorts of contaminants,” Stein says.
This work was supported, in part, by the Department of Defense through the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) fellowship program.
Genesis Nanotechnology, Inc. ~ “Great Things from Small Things”
Some of the world’s most important farming regions rely on freshwater from large underground aquifers that have filled up slowly over thousands of years. Think of the Central Valley aquifer system in California. Or the Indus basin in Pakistan and India. This groundwater is particularly valuable when rain is scarce or during droughts.
But that groundwater may not last forever. Data from NASA’s Grace satellites suggests that 13 of the world’s 37 biggest aquifers are being seriously depleted by irrigation and other uses much faster than they can be recharged by rain or runoff. And, disturbingly, we don’t even know how much water is left in these basins. That’s according to a 2015 paper in Water Resources Research.
The map below gives an overview. There were 21 major groundwater basins — in red, orange, and yellow — that lost water faster than they could be recharged between 2003 and 2013. The 16 major aquifers in blue, by contrast, gained water during that period. Click to enlarge:
The researchers found that 13 basins around the world — fully one-third of the total — appeared to be in serious trouble.
Eight aquifer systems could be categorized as “overstressed”: that is, there’s hardly any natural recharge to offset the water being consumed. In the direst state was the Arabian aquifer system beneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which provides water for 60 million people and is being depleted by irrigation for agriculture. Also in bad shape were the Indus Basin that straddles India and Pakistan and the Murzuq-Djado Basin in Africa.
Another five aquifer systems were categorized as “extremely” or “highly” stressed — they’re being replenished by some rainwater, but not nearly enough to offset withdrawals. That list includes the aquifers underneath California’s Central Valley. During California’s recent brutal, five-year drought, many farmers compensated for the lack of surface water by pumping groundwater at increasing rates. (There are few regulations around this, though California’s legislature recently passed laws that will gradually regulate groundwater withdrawals.)
The result? The basins beneath the Central Valley are being depleted, and the ground is actually sinking, which in turn means these aquifers will be able to store less water in the future. Farmers are losing a crucial buffer against both this drought, if it persists, and future droughts.
The big question: How soon until these aquifers run dry?
Here’s the other troubling bit: It’s unclear exactly when some of these stressed aquifers might be completely depleted — no one knows for sure how much water they actually contain.
In a companion paper in Water Resources Research, the researchers took stock of how little we know about these basins. In the highly stressed Northwest Sahara Aquifer System, for instance, estimates of when the system will be fully drained run anywhere from 10 years to 21,000 years. In order to get better measurements, researchers would have to drill down through many rock layers to measure how much water is there — a difficult task, but not impossible.
“We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia,” said Alexandra Richey, a graduate student at UC Irvine and lead author on both papers, in a press release. “In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”
The researchers note that we should figure this out if we want to manage these aquifers properly — and make sure they last for many years to come. Hundreds of millions of people now rely on aquifers that are rapidly being depleted. And once they’re gone, they can’t easily be refilled.
— Saudi Arabia squandered its groundwater and agriculture collapsed. The rest of the world should take note.
We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.
The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.
There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.
The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.
Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and even the buildings we inhabit.
Challenges and opportunities
Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world. To date, those who have gained the most from it have been consumers able to afford and access the digital world; technology has made possible new products and services that increase the efficiency and pleasure of our personal lives. Ordering a cab, booking a flight, buying a product, making a payment, listening to music, watching a film, or playing a game—any of these can now be done remotely.
In the future, technological innovation will also lead to a supply-side miracle, with long-term gains in efficiency and productivity. Transportation and communication costs will drop, logistics and global supply chains will become more effective, and the cost of trade will diminish, all of which will open new markets and drive economic growth.
At the same time, as the economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have pointed out, the revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor. On the other hand, it is also possible that the displacement of workers by technology will, in aggregate, result in a net increase in safe and rewarding jobs.
We cannot foresee at this point which scenario is likely to emerge, and history suggests that the outcome is likely to be some combination of the two. However, I am convinced of one thing—that in the future, talent, more than capital, will represent the critical factor of production. This will give rise to a job market increasingly segregated into “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments, which in turn will lead to an increase in social tensions.
In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The largest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be the providers of intellectual and physical capital—the innovators, shareholders, and investors—which explains the rising gap in wealth between those dependent on capital versus labor. Technology is therefore one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated, or even decreased, for a majority of the population in high-income countries: the demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.
This helps explain why so many workers are disillusioned and fearful that their own real incomes and those of their children will continue to stagnate. It also helps explain why middle classes around the world are increasingly experiencing a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and unfairness. A winner-takes-all economy that offers only limited access to the middle class is a recipe for democratic malaise and dereliction.
Discontent can also be fueled by the pervasiveness of digital technologies and the dynamics of information sharing typified by social media. More than 30 percent of the global population now uses social media platforms to connect, learn, and share information. In an ideal world, these interactions would provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and cohesion. However, they can also create and propagate unrealistic expectations as to what constitutes success for an individual or a group, as well as offer opportunities for extreme ideas and ideologies to spread.
The impact on business
An underlying theme in my conversations with global CEOs and senior business executives is that the acceleration of innovation and the velocity of disruption are hard to comprehend or anticipate and that these drivers constitute a source of constant surprise, even for the best connected and most well informed. Indeed, across all industries, there is clear evidence that the technologies that underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution are having a major impact on businesses.
On the supply side, many industries are seeing the introduction of new technologies that create entirely new ways of serving existing needs and significantly disrupt existing industry value chains. Disruption is also flowing from agile, innovative competitors who, thanks to access to global digital platforms for research, development, marketing, sales, and distribution, can oust well-established incumbents faster than ever by improving the quality, speed, or price at which value is delivered.
Major shifts on the demand side are also occurring, as growing transparency, consumer engagement, and new patterns of consumer behavior (increasingly built upon access to mobile networks and data) force companies to adapt the way they design, market, and deliver products and services.
A key trend is the development of technology-enabled platforms that combine both demand and supply to disrupt existing industry structures, such as those we see within the “sharing” or “on demand” economy. These technology platforms, rendered easy to use by the smartphone, convene people, assets, and data—thus creating entirely new ways of consuming goods and services in the process. In addition, they lower the barriers for businesses and individuals to create wealth, altering the personal and professional environments of workers. These new platform businesses are rapidly multiplying into many new services, ranging from laundry to shopping, from chores to parking, from massages to travel.
On the whole, there are four main effects that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has on business—on customer expectations, on product enhancement, on collaborative innovation, and on organizational forms. Whether consumers or businesses, customers are increasingly at the epicenter of the economy, which is all about improving how customers are served. Physical products and services, moreover, can now be enhanced with digital capabilities that increase their value. New technologies make assets more durable and resilient, while data and analytics are transforming how they are maintained. A world of customer experiences, data-based services, and asset performance through analytics, meanwhile, requires new forms of collaboration, particularly given the speed at which innovation and disruption are taking place. And the emergence of global platforms and other new business models, finally, means that talent, culture, and organizational forms will have to be rethought.
Overall, the inexorable shift from simple digitization (the Third Industrial Revolution) to innovation based on combinations of technologies (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is forcing companies to reexamine the way they do business. The bottom line, however, is the same: business leaders and senior executives need to understand their changing environment, challenge the assumptions of their operating teams, and relentlessly and continuously innovate.
The impact on government
As the physical, digital, and biological worlds continue to converge, new technologies and platforms will increasingly enable citizens to engage with governments, voice their opinions, coordinate their efforts, and even circumvent the supervision of public authorities. Simultaneously, governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure. On the whole, however, governments will increasingly face pressure to change their current approach to public engagement and policymaking, as their central role of conducting policy diminishes owing to new sources of competition and the redistribution and decentralization of power that new technologies make possible.
Ultimately, the ability of government systems and public authorities to adapt will determine their survival. If they prove capable of embracing a world of disruptive change, subjecting their structures to the levels of transparency and efficiency that will enable them to maintain their competitive edge, they will endure. If they cannot evolve, they will face increasing trouble.
This will be particularly true in the realm of regulation. Current systems of public policy and decision-making evolved alongside the Second Industrial Revolution, when decision-makers had time to study a specific issue and develop the necessary response or appropriate regulatory framework. The whole process was designed to be linear and mechanistic, following a strict “top down” approach.
But such an approach is no longer feasible. Given the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s rapid pace of change and broad impacts, legislators and regulators are being challenged to an unprecedented degree and for the most part are proving unable to cope.
How, then, can they preserve the interest of the consumers and the public at large while continuing to support innovation and technological development? By embracing “agile” governance, just as the private sector has increasingly adopted agile responses to software development and business operations more generally. This means regulators must continuously adapt to a new, fast-changing environment, reinventing themselves so they can truly understand what it is they are regulating. To do so, governments and regulatory agencies will need to collaborate closely with business and civil society.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, affecting both the probability and the nature of conflict. The history of warfare and international security is the history of technological innovation, and today is no exception. Modern conflicts involving states are increasingly “hybrid” in nature, combining traditional battlefield techniques with elements previously associated with nonstate actors. The distinction between war and peace, combatant and noncombatant, and even violence and nonviolence (think cyberwarfare) is becoming uncomfortably blurry.
As this process takes place and new technologies such as autonomous or biological weapons become easier to use, individuals and small groups will increasingly join states in being capable of causing mass harm. This new vulnerability will lead to new fears. But at the same time, advances in technology will create the potential to reduce the scale or impact of violence, through the development of new modes of protection, for example, or greater precision in targeting.
The impact on people
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, finally, will change not only what we do but also who we are. It will affect our identity and all the issues associated with it: our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns, the time we devote to work and leisure, and how we develop our careers, cultivate our skills, meet people, and nurture relationships. It is already changing our health and leading to a “quantified” self, and sooner than we think it may lead to human augmentation. The list is endless because it is bound only by our imagination.
I am a great enthusiast and early adopter of technology, but sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation. Our relationship with our smartphones is a case in point. Constant connection may deprive us of one of life’s most important assets: the time to pause, reflect, and engage in meaningful conversation.
One of the greatest individual challenges posed by new information technologies is privacy. We instinctively understand why it is so essential, yet the tracking and sharing of information about us is a crucial part of the new connectivity. Debates about fundamental issues such as the impact on our inner lives of the loss of control over our data will only intensify in the years ahead. Similarly, the revolutions occurring in biotechnology and AI, which are redefining what it means to be human by pushing back the current thresholds of life span, health, cognition, and capabilities, will compel us to redefine our moral and ethical boundaries.
Shaping the future
Neither technology nor the disruption that comes with it is an exogenous force over which humans have no control. All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, in the decisions we make on a daily basis as citizens, consumers, and investors. We should thus grasp the opportunity and power we have to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution and direct it toward a future that reflects our common objectives and values.
To do this, however, we must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril. Today’s decision-makers, however, are too often trapped in traditional, linear thinking, or too absorbed by the multiple crises demanding their attention, to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping our future.
In the end, it all comes down to people and values. We need to shape a future that works for all of us by putting people first and empowering them. In its most pessimistic, dehumanized form, the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails.
This article was first published in Foreign Affairs
Author: Klaus Schwab is Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum
Image: An Aeronavics drone sits in a paddock near the town of Raglan, New Zealand, July 6, 2015. REUTERS/Naomi Tajitsu
Yale researchers have confirmed that hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking” – does not contaminate drinking water. The process of extracting natural gas from deep underground wells using water has been given a bad reputation when it comes to the impact it has on water resources but Yale researchers recently disproved this myth in a new study that confirms a previous report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted earlier this year.
After analyzing 64 samples of groundwater collected from private residences in northeastern Pennsylvania, researchers determined that groundwater contamination was more closely related to surface toxins seeping down into the water than from fracking operations seeping upwards. Their findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
Researchers also noted that shale underlying the Pennsylvania surface did not cause any organic chemicals to seep into groundwater aquifers. However, these findings may not be applicable to all locations worldwide.
“Geology across the country is very different. So if you’re living over in the New Albany-area shale of Illinois, that might be distinct from living in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania,” Plata explained.
Researchers from Duke University also recently gave people a reason to trust fracking companies. In a study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, scientists explained that hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than one percent of water used nationwide for industrial purposes. This suggested that the natural gas extraction processes are far less water-intensive than we previously thought.
It’s hoped that these studies will help people better understand the safety of fracking.
20 Oct 2015
*** Note to Readers: We at Team GNT™ believe very strongly that “Water Solutions for a thirsty Planet” can be and will be enabled by Nanotechnology. Whether those solutions come in the form of Nano Enabled Membrane Technology, Catalyst-Thermal Technology or (Yet To Be Discovered-Developed Technology) … we expect “Great Things from Small Things”! As such we always appreciate “perspective articles” such has been offered here.
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*** Re-Posted from “One-Green-Planet” ***
All of terrestrial life depends on freshwater. From densely populated cities to rural communities, farmland and forestland, and domestic and wild animals, all are in need of clean water to sustain them. Miraculously, just a small percentage of the water on earth is actually available as freshwater.
According to the U.S. Geological Service, only about 2.5 percent of all the water on planet earth is freshwater. And only 1.2 percent of that is most easily accessible on the earth’s surface in the form of lakes, rivers, swamps, soil moisture, and permafrost. An additional 30.1 percent exists as groundwater while the majority of this freshwater, 68.7 percent to be exact, is locked up as frozen glaciers and ice caps.
It is in our best interest to treat freshwater supplies with the utmost respect, and yet we’re losing out on this invaluable resource due to our own ignorance and negligence.
So, what can we do to save our water? There are, luckily, a variety of solutions. From education and conservation to emerging technologies, we are hatching up a plethora of solutions to our water woes. One of the strategies that many countries are using is desalination where salt water is essentially converted into freshwater. There’s plenty of salt water on the planet, as we know, so this sounds like a fabulous idea. Or is it?
Getting freshwater From Saltwater – How?
Desalination is a process that converts salt water to freshwater by removing salts and other minerals, leaving behind freshwater, potable water. While there are a variety of methods to accomplish this task, they can be grouped mainly into two types.
The first method, thermal desalination, involves the heating of saline water. Salts are left behind while freshwater is converted to steam and is collected, ultimately to condense back into water that is now saline-free and ready for use in an instance where freshwater is desired.
The second type of desalination involves the use of membranes to separate salt and other minerals from water. Pressure or electric currents may be used to drive saline water through a membrane which acts as a filter. Freshwater ends up on one side of the membrane while saline water stays on the other side as a form of waste.
Of course, these are very, very basic descriptions of some pretty complex and evolving technologies. But they do offer a quick insight into what the process of desalination looks like in most settings around the world. For some individuals, this is the technology used to provide them with clean drinking water.
Where Are Desalination Plants Working Now?
Desalination is a technology that has been around for quite some time and is seeing improved growth around the world in the face of increasing water demands. Since 2003, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Spain have led the world in desalination capacities. As of 2013, there were over 17,000 desalination plants worldwide in roughly 150 countries, providing more than 300 million people with at least some of their daily freshwater needs.
Israel is one successful case-study when it comes to the value of desalination. The nation currently has a quarter of its freshwater needs met through four desalination plants that treat mainly brackish well water (water that is part salt/part fresh). Israel’s desalination plants currently produce 130 million gallons of potable water a year and they are aiming to increase that number to 200 million gallons a year by 2020. While aggressive conservation efforts also helped ease the impact of severe drought, desalination has certainly been an important piece of solving a water crises.
As countries all over the world increase their capacity for desalination plants, drought-stricken areas like the United States southwest are taking note and investing in this technology. In fact, construction on the Western hemisphere’s largest desalination plant is nearly complete in San Diego, California and is expected to open for operation later this year. In the face of severe drought, desalination is becoming a much more appetizing option for this region to put its plentiful access to seawater to good use and to alleviate some of the pressures that developed and agricultural areas are placing on freshwater sources.
Is This The Answer to Water Shortages Worldwide?
Whether or not desalination is the savior for water woes is a complex debate and answers will probably vary depending on who you are asking. You’ll find there are activists, scientists, public agencies, governments, and citizens on both sides of the debate.
The first input that comes to mind when you think of desalination is probably the saline water that’s being treated, right? Depending on the source of this saline water, there may be a variety of detrimental impacts to the local ecology to consider when it comes to desalination operations.
Some desalination plants use direct intake methods to gather saline water, meaning they extract water directly from the water column, either from the surface or at greater depths in the ocean. The problem with this extraction method is that, in addition to taking in saltwater that can become a viable freshwater source, a host of marine life is also sucked up in the process. Algae, plankton, jellyfish, fish, and larva of many species can all easily be killed with this direct intake method for harvesting sea water.
The impact of ocean water extraction on local marine life is not well understood, however, experts will note there are a variety of ways to skate around issues like this. One such method is indirect intake where pipes are buried in the substrate and intake water that is actually filtered down through the sand first. Marine life damage is largely eliminated using this method. Physical barriers to intake pipes may also be utilized where screens or meshes are able to keep smaller marine creatures out of the intake pipes. And behavioral deterrents, like bubble screens and strobe lights, are another option to discourage marine animals from swimming too close to intake systems where they become trapped.
Saline water that is being harvested for desalination projects are not the only issue creating ecological impacts for this water treatment system. The output of wastewater is another issue that critics point out when it comes to desalination. Water discharged from desalination plants has a higher level of saline than the body of water it is entering. While some creatures can tolerate change in salinity, others cannot and may be killed on contact. Discharging water that has been heated in the desalination process can also cause temperature spikes and stress to any aquatic life in a close radius. And, the water discharged from desalination operations may also have an altered chemical composition given the added antifouling agents, heavy metals, chlorine, antiscaling chemicals, and cleaning solutions used in the process. All have a potential to detrimentally impact the local ecology surrounding a desalination operation.
Some solutions for wastewater from desalination operations already exist. Because saline water is more likely to sink and move along the ocean bottom, discharging it upward can help promote mixing of wastewater more quickly to disperse salinity and weaken the impacts that concentrated salt levels can cause. Additionally, plants can invest in technology to lessen the amount of chemicals they use in the treatment process, and even attempt to let wastewater evaporate, leaving behind only solid waste for plant operators to dispose of. These may not be perfect solutions, but they are attempts to make desalination operations more friendly to the local ecology.
One major difficulty with fully embracing desalination has to do with the major energy inputs the technology requires. Costs attributed to desalination depend largely on energy costs which can and do fluctuate from year to year. Roughly 60 percent of the cost of operating a thermal desalination plant comes from the energy costs to operate the plant, while 36 percent of the cost to run a reverse osmosis plant comes from the energy it uses.
Greenhouse gas emissions associated with desalination plants depend heavily on the type of energy utilized. In an area where fossil fuels are burned to make electricity, emissions associated with desalination will be higher. Additionally, if a desalination plant relies heavily on hydroelectric power, a drought in the area may increase the cost of energy from the electric plant and thus the cost to run the desalination plant.
As with any new and growing technology, there can be an expected higher cost than the conventional way of doing things. Desalination is no exception. Using San Diego County as an example, we can see just how much more expensive desalination is than other methods of providing freshwater. The cost to save an acre-foot of water through conservation and user education around efficiency may fall anywhere between $150 and $,1000. Importing an acre-foot of water may cost somewhere between $875 and $975. Recycling an acre-foot of potable water has a range in cost between $1,200 and $1,800. And providing an acre-foot of freshwater through seawater desalination would cost between $1,800 and $2,800. As local agencies and governments come up against budget cuts and financing difficulties, it may be impossible to justify this technology in the face of cheaper options that provide the same results.
Citizens will see an increase in their water bill as more of their freshwater is sourced from expensive desalination processes. This rise in basic living costs in the face of economic hardship may be difficult to justify, especially for a resource as important as freshwater. Desalination is certainly not a cost-saving choice.
Is It A Go?
It is certainly important to note the improvements that technology like desalination can provide to society. Especially as we are faced with increased challenges to meet the needs of a growing population, it is important to have a variety of options available to us.
While desalination is certainly an amazing option to convert water that was once too salty for human-use into something that can quench thirsts, maintain sanitation, and irrigate agriculture, one may be left wondering if the cost is really worth it. There are still many improvements left to be made to make this a more environmentally friendly option. As it stands, it is not without some major drawbacks when it comes to local ecology destruction, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. And it is certainly a very expensive option when you consider how little money it would take to simply educate the masses on how to conserve water.
Desalination is a wonderful testament to the human mind and inventive capacity, but it may simply be a very advanced and expensive method for maintaining our ignorance to the natural world with exist within. We may be able to provide freshwater in places where it didn’t previously exist, but what’s the point if people continue to remain ignorant to how to better use the water we already have? In the face of a crisis this may certainly be a valuable technology, but we have not even yet begun to address some of the issues that are causing our water shortages in the first place. And that’s an issue we need to work out through education and conversation around sustainability rather than throwing money into more expensive technology.
Lead Image Source: JohnKay/Flickr
Editor’s Note: This is the 10th installment of an occasional series on water scarcity issues around the world that Stratfor will be building upon periodically.
Despite being “water rich,” Canada will experience increasing regional water stress as demographics and climate variability threaten the natural resources in the country’s prairie. Suggestions about the possibility of Canada exporting water will emerge sporadically, as they have in the past. But such plans are highly unlikely to come to fruition, both because public opinion opposes the commoditization of water and because the exporting water would not be profitable. While Canada will continue to protect its freshwater resources, it will not turn them into a traded commodity.
Canada’s wealth of resources and comparatively small population allow the government to capitalize on the export of a number of goods, including oil, natural gas, fertilizer and wheat. But although Canada holds roughly 7 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources and less than 1 percent of the total global population, water is not poised to become another exported commodity — even as other areas of the world continue coping with water stress and water scarcity.
Canadian citizens generally view access to water as a basic human right and oppose attempts to sell it for profit. In addition, logistical difficulties and economic infeasibility — not only in Canada, but globally — ensure that bulk transfers of water across long distances will remain rare.
Canada’s Deceptive Abundance
The amount of renewable fresh water available to each Canadian citizen is more than 80,000 cubic meters per year. Even other countries that are not typically considered water stressed have far less water available per citizen. For example, the United Kingdom’s annual per capita water availability is just over 2,300 cubic meters per year, and the United States has just over 9,500 cubic meters per person.
However, Canada’s surfeit of water is greater on paper than it is in reality. The country’s water prices are among the lowest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, encouraging overuse of the resources. Moreover, as in the United States, Canada’s water is not equally distributed. The majority of Canada’s population lives in the southern part of the country, but 60 percent of the country’s renewable water drains to the north, so access to water resources is limited. In fact, some areas of Canada are already experiencing some degree of water stress.
The prairie provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are typically more arid than other parts of the country. An expansion of agricultural and industrial activity in the region, along with population increases in recent decades, has led to greater water stress in parts of these provinces, and the pressure is expected to increase in coming decades. Agricultural and extractive industrial activity can be expected to continue in the region even as existing resources dwindle. Glaciers that feed the headwaters of many of the major rivers in the region have shrunk by roughly 25 percent in the past 100 years. Increasing temperatures and more frequent droughts are predicted, likely further increasing the strain on the water supply.
05 May 2015
California homes, farms and businesses depend on water that flows from the Sierra Nevada Mountains through the state’s main water distribution system to regions across the state, including the Bay Area, Central Valley, Central Coast and Southern California. But key portions of the system are outdated and crumbling, putting the security and reliability of our local water supplies at risk. Experts warn that the system could collapse in an earthquake, and is susceptible to salt water intrusion during major droughts or natural disasters.
The plan to fix California’s water system, known as the California Water Fix, will address the severe vulnerability in our water infrastructure and secure local water supplies. Outdated, dirt levees would be replaced with a modern water pipeline built to withstand Earthquakes and other natural disasters. Natural water flows would be restored to support the surrounding environs. The plan is critical for many California communities and our state’s economy. Learn more by scrolling down, and join our broad coalition.
Read About the Plan Here: