How Your Pencil Is Fixing Water Scarcity

My apologies for the click-bait title, but this research is so cool it deserves your undivided attention. As most of us know, we have a serious problem when it comes to water scarcity. It is estimated that 2.8 billion people in the world do not have access to viable drinking water for at least one month each year. This also puts a strain on Earth’s fresh water systems which are already threatened by pollution and over consumption. With drought instances increasing across the world, it is expected that water scarcity will only increase. However, there is a group of scientists who released a study claiming that they have created a sieve that can filter salt from seawater. The sieve is created from a chemical derivative called graphene oxide. 

If that word sounds familiar, it should because we’ve all interacted with graphene since kindergarten. Graphene is simply a single layer of graphite, which is what pencils are made of. It has been known for quite some time that single-layer graphene could work as a great filter membrane. However, in order for it to work, you have to take the graphene and drill microscopic holes- which is time-consuming and extremely costly. Graphene oxide can actually be applied to a porous surface, which is much easier and cheaper. 

There have been issues with these new filters because there was evidence that these membranes expanded when submerged in water, still allowing large salt particles to pass through them. 

Dr. Nair and a team from the University of Manchester found the missing piece to the puzzle! It turns out that if you add walls of epoxy resin (a substance found in glue) to the sides of the membrane, it prevents it from expanding. This means that water molecules can pass through the membrane while sodium chloride (salt) is stopped! 

The next step in the testing of these membranes is to make sure that they are durable enough for mass consumption. The applications of these filter membranes is staggering. The UN estimates that by 2025, 14% of the global human population will be affected by water scarcity. These membranes provide a practical solution for developing and developed countries to access clean drinking water through desalination. 

Who knew that the answer to water scarcity was in the palm of our hands all this time!