According to a report from the University of Texas, a new membrane has been created which can drastically increase the efficiency of previously tested desalination membranes.

“Reverse osmosis membranes are widely used for cleaning water, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about them,” said Manish Kumar, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at UT Austin, who co-led the research. “We couldn’t really say how water moves through them, so all the improvements over the past 40 years have essentially been done in the dark.”

Desalination membranes separate water from salt and other contaminants, a mechanism vital to the wellbeing of society, washing for irrigation, electricity generation and drinking billions of gallons of water. The principle sounds simple—to drive saline water in and clean water out of the other side—but it involves nuanced intricate details that scientists are still trying to grasp.

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The research team, in collaboration with DuPont, revealed a methodology to develop a clean water production cost reduction technique. The secret to increasing how much clean water these membranes will produce is in standardized density at the nanoscale.

“Fresh water management is becoming a crucial challenge throughout the world,” said Enrique Gomez, a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State who co-led the research. “Shortages, droughts — with increasing severe weather patterns, it is expected this problem will become even more significant. It’s critically important to have clean water availability, especially in low-resource areas.”

A lone tree stands before Cherokee Falls.
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Reverse osmosis membranes operate by adding pressure to the saline end solution on one side to produce a pure freshwater production. Minerals are deposited in the rock as the stream runs in. However, because of the environmental damage associated with producing desalinated water, all of the gains technologically, technically, and economically with the membrane desalination process are lost in the long run

The paper states a 30 to 40 percent improvement in energy quality for the membranes that they studied, suggesting they can clean more water while utilizing less energy in the process.