Photo via Darwin Bell @ flickr
Stand at the edge of a reservoir, river, or ocean and it's hard to imagine that the planet could ever run out of water; even just a day at the beach makes your one small shower a day seem like less of a threat. But with overuse an ever-growing problem, it may be just a matter of time until we find ourselves murmuring that old lost-at-sea refrain, "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink." Of course, technology can do anything—which means making more water might not be as hard as it sounds with these future-forward breakthroughs.
What to know about desalination
Desalination—the process of turning saltwater into freshwater by reverse osmosis—isn't a perfect solution: it uses huge amounts of energy, costs a bundle, and hasn't been extensively tested for safety when it's used for drinking water.
The major players in desalination
The technology continues to improve and expand: California just approved plans for a $320 million plant in Carlsbad, which will process 100 million gallons a day; Oasys Water brought in $10 million in funding to develop a technology called engineered osmosis, which requires only 10% of the energy used in reverse osmosis; and the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute put together a prototype for a system that uses low amounts of heat (available from solar power or cooling leftovers).
The future of desalination
Meanwhile, General Electric, the National Science Foundation, and a Canadian engineering student are racing to patent equipment that would make desalination as much as 700% more effective while using less energy.
Water PurificationWhat to know about water purification Water purifiers, like desalination technologies, can also use reverse osmosis, but they aren't just checking for salt; they also filter out compounds and contaminants from freshwater.
But not all purification systems require a filter: boiling water is one of the easiest ways to purify it, but that method isn't very energy-efficient. Trying to make clean water on a small scale? Adding a layer of sand to your rain barrel helps brighten up your post-thunderstorm catch, while portable tablets make creek water safe on long hikes.
The Solaqua prototype harnesses the sun's UV rays to clean up water without boiling, and the scientists at Dendritic Nanotechnologies, Inc., created a purification method that absorbs toxic chemicals and leaves clean water behind. Of course, not all the ideas have to be uber high-tech: Engineers Without Borders found a simple solution that villagers in Rwanda use to make sure water is safe with nothing more than a tube and some wax.
Making Water from HumidityWhat to know about making water from humidity: Already using a dehumidifier? Systems that make water from humidity work in almost the same way, but instead of leaving you with a pan of water, they leave you with clean, filtered water pulled--almost like magic--from the air.
The major players:
There are more manufacturers joining this market than you might think: Air2Water Dolphin produces about 5 gallons of water a day in 70% humidity; Waterex can store 5 gallons and distribute an additional 8 gallons a day; and EcoloBlue's Atmospheric Water Generator promises 7 gallons a day.
More on the water crisis
Peak Water Homepage
Oceans of Change: Protecting the Planet's Life Support System
Bottle Battle: We Put Self-Filtering Water Bottles to the Test
Buying a Water Filtration System: Determining Which System is Best for You