Here’s a staggering statistic: there are over 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. But less than 3% of this water is fresh water. And more than two-thirds of that water is locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, far below the Earth’s surface, or otherwise unavailable. Short? Only 0.5% of the Earth’s water is actually available for us to drink.
However, that could be about to change, as MIT researchers have developed a portable, user-friendly device that can turn salt water into drinking water with just the press of a button. Their research was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental science and technology. For now, the prototype fits in a normal-sized suitcase and can process 1 liter per hour; but when the product is fully developed, it will be able to filter 10 times that amount, making it a vital tool for remote island communities, ocean freighters and even refugee camps near water.
The desalination unit is not the first device capable of filtering salt water, but existing devices are expensive and require a lot of energy to operate. They also rely on filters, which can be expensive and need to be changed regularly.
In comparison, this device requires less power to operate than a cell phone charger and can be powered by a small solar panel attached to the outside. It also works without ever needing to replace a filter because there simply isn’t one. Instead, the device uses two types of electric fields to remove particles such as salt molecules, as well as bacteria and viruses.
Its real innovation is that it was designed to be used by ordinary people. A tube feeds the salt water into the machine; the water is filtered inside the device, then another tube extracts the clean water into a separate container. On the outside, the device has only three visible buttons: the first powers it, the second starts the process, the third stops it. A screen warns the user when the water is drinkable.
All of this means that the device could be used in areas with limited resources, provided the team can cut costs. Right now, that’s around $4,000-$6,000, which is similar to the other units out there. But Junghyo Yoon, a scientist at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics who developed the device and co-authored the study, plans to price it down to around $1,500, which would make it more accessible to NGOs.
Much of this will depend on the final design and manufacture of the device. Yoon says the current prototype is in a regular suitcase he bought online, but he’s hoping for a $1 million investment that could help him get the product out of the lab and into a factory where he can experiment with different manufacturing processes such as injection molding.
A final prototype could be ready by the end of next year and bring us one drop closer to releasing those 326 million billion gallons of water.