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PEAK — PROMOTING EDUCATION, AWARENESS, AND KNOWLEDGE

University of the Rockies is proud to share our PEAK initiative: Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge. Every month, we'll highlight different causes and opportunities that reflect the values of the University. You'll also learn ways you can participate.

Opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University.

April 2015

(Muck)Water, (Salt)Water, Everywhere
by Dylan Self, Military Student Advisor at University of the Rockies

It goes without saying that water is the fundamental necessity for life to survive on our planet. Indeed, water is understood to be so valuable that even NASA scientists take this fact to be a presumptive one when they scan the galaxies looking for potentially habitable worlds (Billings 2014). But with the human population rising so quickly and potable water becoming increasingly hard to procure, the options for dealing with supply and demand become more pressing while the human cost for any delayed technological breakthroughs in the field become more heart-rending.

Here is the problem: 783 million people worldwide have no access to clean water, and unsafe water is blamed for fatal diarrhea that kills 3,000 children under the age of five every day (Higgintotham 2013). If local water is polluted with bacteria or sewage, it is treated with chlorine tablets. If it’s spoiled by contamination due to heavy metals, charcoal filters must be used. But in order to discover what was wrong with the water, engineers must conduct advance testing, followed by constant monitoring (Ibid). As such, maintaining supplies of filters and equipment is costly and the palatability of the water is an issue as well.

Entrepreneur Dean Kamen has proposed one possible solution to the crisis. Kamen holds a number of patents and gained fame (or infamy) as the inventor of the Segway – those upright, two-wheeled vehicles many of us crane our necks to observe as they roll down the street (Ibid). After studying water scarcity in Third World countries, Kamen partnered with Coca-Cola to assist him in achieving his long-held goal of creating pure drinking water from anything wet. Kamen dubbed his invention The Slingshot and described it as a “black box” with “two hoses in it.”

“You take the one with the big end and stick it in anything that looks wet: the ocean; a latrine; a chemical-waste site; a well,” Kamen said. “Out of the other end comes the purest water you will ever see” (Ibid). 

Currently he’s in the process of sending Slingshots to Paraguay, South Africa, and Mexico, with the intention to get the device into 15 countries and create one billion liters of clean water per year. With further research and development, Kamen’s design could revolutionize the way societies can utilize the resources available to them, thus saving millions of lives over time. 

Another solution to water scarcity focuses on the process by which ocean water is desalinized so landlocked nations will also be able to meet their domestic needs. Desalination is both costly and time-consuming; therefore the mass-production of drinkable water lies just beyond the means of most nations. Most of the time, a process called reverse osmosis is utilized, in which water is pumped through a membrane that blocks sodium and chlorine ions from passing through. This technique doesn’t require much energy to create desalinated water, but it is very slow due to how long it takes the water to pass through the membranes. 

Martin Bazant, Daosheng Deng, and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (MIT) claim they’ve developed another method of desalinating water called shock electrodialysis (New Desalination Technique 2014). Like other forms of electrodialysis, this method involves using a layer of fitted glass as an additional filter near the cathode, thus reducing the desalination and purification process to a single step. In the end, shock electrodialysis can desalinate, filter, and disinfect water in small amounts quickly and easily, but producing the amounts needed for global consumption levels will require new innovations in the mass generation of power.

Ironically, two of the compounds we cannot live without are salt and water, and even though the oceans are full of both, we are unable to utilize them at the levels we need. Technology is advancing at exponential rates, but not fast enough for a global solution to be apparent, ready for mass production, and available for every country in ways to avoid the tragic loss of millions of lives. Hopefully the efforts of people like Kamen, Bazant, Deng, and others can get the technology where it needs to be so all mankind can share in fearless abundance of this invaluable resource.

References:
Billings, Lee.  (6 May, 2014). Onward to Europa. Retrieved on 12 March, 2015 from: http://aeon.co/magazine/science/its-time-to-look-for-life-in-europas-ocean/

Higginbotham, Adam. (13 August, 2013). Dean Kamen’s Mission to Bring Unlimited Clean Water to the Developing World. Retrieved on 10 March, 2015 from: http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/08/features/engine-of-progress

New Desalination Technique Also Cleans and Disinfects Water.  (11 February, 2014). Retrieved on 10 March, 2015 from: http://www.technologyreview.com/view/524606/new-desalination-technique-also-cleans-and-disinfects-water/ 



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