MIT's new desalination unit generates drinking water without the need for filters

The new device works with the push of a button.
Loukia Papadopoulos

MIT researchers have engineered a portable desalination unit that can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water that exceeds World Health Organization quality standards with just the push of a button, according to a statement published by the institution on Thursday.

The new device requires no filters or pumps, weighs less than 10 kilograms, needs less power to operate than a cell phone charger, can be driven by a small portable solar panel that costs $50, and works with the push of a button. 

Removing particles from water without replacement filters 

“This is really the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We worked for years on the physics behind individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, that was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me,” said senior author Jongyoon Han, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering, and a member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE).

The device uses a novel system that utilizes electrical power to remove particles from drinking water, eliminating the need for replacement filters. This greatly reduces the long-term maintenance requirements of the unit and makes it ideal for use in remote and severely resource-limited areas. Additional uses for the device include aiding refugees to flee natural disasters or helping soldiers carry out long-term military operations.

How well does it work? The desalination device was field-tested at Boston’s Carson Beach. The researchers simply placed the box near the shore and threw the feed tube into the water. It took a mere half an hour to fill a plastic drinking cup with clear, drinkable water that exceeded World Health Organization quality guidelines.

“It was successful even in its first run, which was quite exciting and surprising. But I think the main reason we were successful is the accumulation of all these little advances that we made along the way,” Han explained.

The researchers provided the following statistics for their unit. It reduces the number of suspended solids by at least a factor of 10,  generates drinking water at a rate of 0.3 liters per hour, and requires only 20 watts of power per liter.

A device that anyone can use

Han added that the best thing about their device is that it is intuitive enough to be used by anyone as all it requires is the push of a button. However, added the researcher, much work still needs to be done for the product to be market-ready.

For now, the materials used to produce the unit are quite expensive. “It would be interesting to see similar systems with low-cost materials in place," said Nidal Hilal, professor of engineering and director of the New York University Abu Dhabi Water research center, who was not involved with this research.

Still, the team is looking to go into production soon. “Right now, we are pushing our research to scale up that production rate,” Junghyo Yoon, a research scientist in RLE, said. Would you consider buying the new device?

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