Han and microfluidics team create unique desalination process

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March 29, 2010

EECS Associate Professor Jongyoon Han, working with Postdoctoral Associate Sung Jae Kim in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, RLE, and colleagues in Korea, have reported in Nature Nanotechnology a new technique using microfluidics devices to accomplish water desalination on a small but useful emergency basis. The work is described by the MIT News Office, David L. Chandler, on March 23, 2010, "A system that's worth its salt - New approach to water desalination could lead to small, portable units that could be sent to disaster sites or remote locations." Read a preview of this article below or more...

"Potable water is often in high demand and short supply following a natural disaster like the Haiti earthquake or Hurricane Katrina. In both of those instances, the disaster zones were near the sea, but converting salty seawater to potable fresh water usually requires a large amount of dependable electrical power and large-scale desalination plants — neither of which were available in the disaster areas.

A new approach to desalination being developed by researchers at MIT and in Korea could lead to small, portable units that could be powered by solar cells or batteries and could deliver enough fresh water to supply the needs of a family or small village. As an added bonus, the system would also remove many contaminants, viruses and bacteria at the same time.

The new approach, called ion concentration polarization, is described in a paper by Postdoctoral Associate Sung Jae Kim and Associate Professor Jongyoon Han, both in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and colleagues in Korea. The paper was published on March 21 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

One of the leading desalination methods, called reverse osmosis, uses membranes that filter out the salt, but these require strong pumps to maintain the high pressure needed to push the water through the membrane, and are subject to fouling and blockage of the pores in the membrane by salt and contaminants. The new system separates salts and microbes from the water by electrostatically repelling them away from the ion-selective membrane in the system — so the flowing water never needs to pass through a membrane. That should eliminate the need for high pressure and the problems of fouling, the researchers say.

The system works at a microscopic scale, using fabrication methods developed for microfluidics devices — similar to the manufacture of microchips, but using materials such as silicone (synthetic rubber). Each individual device would only process minute amounts of water, but a large number of them — the researchers envision an array with 1,600 units fabricated on an 8-inch-diameter wafer — could produce about 15 liters of water per hour, enough to provide drinking water for several people. The whole unit could be self-contained and driven by gravity — salt water would be poured in at the top, and fresh water and concentrated brine collected from two outlets at the bottom."