UCLA's Nanotunnels Could Lower the Cost of Desalination

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UCLA researchers develop nanoscale membrane to purify waterTeeny tiny particles could provide an answer to a massive problem: how to provide enough potable water to sustain the global population of human beings.  Researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at UCLA have come up with one solution, a membrane made of  a specially engineered nanoscale material that can purify water with far greater energy efficiency than current technology.


Not that we really could drink our way out of climate change and rising sea levels, but a more energy efficient way to desalinate seawater could enable the world’s population to use the oceans as a source of potable water on a far greater scale than is currently done.

New Breakthrough in Reverse Osmosis

In conventional reverse osmosis water treatment, water is forced through a membrane under high pressure, which requires a lot of energy.  The UCLA team developed a new membrane composed partly of nanoparticles that form sponge-like “nanotunnels” through which water is passed.  The nanoparticles attract water but repel contaminants including salt.  Far less energy is required to pass water through this type of specialized nanomaterial.  Conventional technology also involves higher energy demand and maintenance costs related to the buildup of bacteria and organic materials on the membrane, and the UCLA breakthrough practically eliminates this complication because the nanoparticles repel these substances, too.  The research team estimates that a water purification process using the new membrane would require about half as much energy as the conventional process.

A Flood of New Desalination Technologies

UCLA’s interest in desalination is in support of the California economy, and that state’s long coastline provides easy access to limitless seawater.  The U.S. Navy is another chief player in the desalination matrix, applied to shipboard operations, land bases, and humanitarian relief efforts.  A Canadian company called Saltworks Technologies recently introduced an energy-saving desalination technology, and researchers at Yale are working on their own high efficiency reverse osmosis membrane.  Maybe we can drink our way out of this mess after all.

Image:  Salt by kevindooley on flickr.com.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3150 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

2 thoughts on “UCLA's Nanotunnels Could Lower the Cost of Desalination

  • Am I the only person who worries about large-scale increases in the ocean’s salinity? Desalination is an idea that starts bad and gets worse from there. I hope the world will spend more time working on root causes. Negative population growth would be a huge help, and not just in this arena.

  • Dumping brine in the oceans will certainly rise the salinity in the dumping sites, but if carefully planned with gradual dispersion in strong marine currents, local biosphere won’t suffer.

    The water will eventually return to the oceans through evaporation, so I don’t think there will be any change in the salinity of the oceans overall.

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