New Water Purification Technology Uses Sunlight

Reader Contribution by The University Of Texas At Austin
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Guihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has discovered a revolutionary water purification method using sunlight and “hydrogels”.

Every week, approximately 30,000 people die due to the consumption and use of contaminated and unsanitary water. While most of these occur in developing countries, the United States is still vulnerable to illness from contaminated or unsanitary water sources, particularly after natural disasters such as hurricanes and tropical storms.

Due to the growing number of unsanitary water-related deaths around the globe, Yu has been developing a new and cost-efficient method for purifying water, using sunlight and “hydrogels”, which are networks of polymer chains known for their high water absorbency. Possessing both hydrophilic (attraction to water) qualities and semiconducting (solar-adsorbing) properties, these hydrogels enable the production of clean, safe drinking water from any source, whether it is from the oceans or contaminated supplies.

Current methods of purifying water are incredibly costly, and rely on optical instruments to concentrate sunlight. The UT Austin team has developed nanostructured gels that require far less energy, only needing naturally occurring levels of ambient sunlight to run while also being capable of significantly increasing the volume of water that can be evaporated. The hydrogels allow for water vapor to be generated under direct sunlight and then pumped to a condenser for freshwater delivery.

Since salt is one of the most difficult substances to remove from water, Yu used this new technology to desalinate water from the Dead Sea, an incredibly salt-dense body of water. Using the hydrogels and sunlight, UT engineers were able to reduce salinity from Dead Sea samples significantly after putting them through the hydrogel process. In fact, they achieved levels that met accepted drinking water standards as outlined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This was done at an extremely low cost compared to other methods of desalination.

Because salt is one of the most difficult substances to separate from water, researchers have also successfully demonstrated the hydrogels’ capacity for filtering out a number of other common contaminants found in water that are considered unsafe for consumption.

Yu believes that this method can become commercialized, and has begun preparing his research team for the possibility of requests from industry to conduct further tests.

The potential impact of this new technology could be global, helping many struggling communities and countries gain easy access to clean water, using sunlight and hydrogels.

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