Researchers at MIT have created a device that may soon be able to turn seawater into drinking water for entire households using nothing but solar energy.
And, to top it off, the water produced by this device could eventually cost less than US tap water, according to a paper published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Joule.
Yang Zhong, a graduate student at MIT and an author of the September 27 paper, said this desalination device is more efficient, longer-lasting, and cheaper than previous desalination devices.
“After several years of operation the price of water from our system may be less than the current tap water prices,” Zhong said to Insider.
Desalination is the process of removing the salt from saline water, like seawater, to make it drinkable. It’s a particularly helpful method for providing drinking water to water-scarce regions, like the Middle East and North Africa, according to Manzoor Qadir, an environmental scientist and deputy director of the United Nations University who was not involved in the MIT study.
The new device also relies on solar power, meaning users don’t have to account for the cost of electricity when converting their water, according to the study. This eliminates a major financial barrier, especially for low-income countries experiencing water scarcity, Qadir said.
Now the researchers have the device working in the lab, Zhong says the next big hurdle will be to get it out into the world. This will take more testing in order to determine how long the device can last and how much salty water it produces as a by-product of desalination.
Measuring brine production is important because it’s so salty that, when disposed in the ocean in a single area over long periods of time, it can harm some aquatic life, according to Qadir.
But, this negative impact can be mitigated with the right tools.
“The desalination process produces brine. However, this is not a major issue because there are many technologies that can reduce brine. “They’re also trying to find fish species that can tolerate very high levels of salts. So it’s not actually an issue, but still there is a need to keep investigating.”
The team is also working to scale the device to a larger size so that it can serve more people. If the team can successfully build a larger model, it’s possible their device could provide enough daily drinking water for a small family, Zhong said.
Scaling the device is one of the greatest challenges that the team will face.
“The main challenge is the scale issue,” Qadir said. “When it comes to developing the device on a larger scale, on a commercial scale, then the challenges actually start coming.”
The team is also investigating how this device could help serve larger communities should scaling efforts go as planned — and they’ve already received inquiries from both domestic and international organizations about the product, according to Zhong.
This development comes just months after the 2023 United Nations World Water Development Report warned of a looming water scarcity crisis around the world. For Qadir, desalination is a key factor in solving this water crisis.
“Desalination is the future of water resource augmentation,” Qadir said.