Email Print Share
February 12, 2021

Desalination breakthrough could lead to cheaper water filtration

Producing clean water at a lower cost could be on the horizon after researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Penn State solved a complex problem that has baffled scientists for decades. In partnership with DuPont Water Solutions, the researchers determined that desalination membranes are inconsistent in density and mass distribution, and the inconsistency can hold back their performance.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Raise your glass. (Sound effect: clink!)

I'm Bob Karson with The Discovery Files, from NSF -- the U.S. National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: surf sound) There's a new advance in one type of desalination the reverse osmosis procedure that pushes the salty water through a series of membranes to produce pure clean unsalted water -- (Sound effect: pouring water into glass) for drinking, (Sound effect: tractor, irrigation sounds) farming, energy production and industry.

The method's in use all over the world. But researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State found a way to do it more efficiently, for a much lower cost.

Scientists never fully understood the minute details of how water moved through the membranes. That is, until the team looked into it at the nanoscale. They found the membranes were inconsistent in density and mass distribution, causing them to underperform. Through 3D electron microscopy and modeling, they discovered that by simply making sure the membranes were structured properly and consistently at the nanometer scale, clean water production could be increased by approximately 30 percent in the best case.

Desalination requires lots of energy. With each gallon around 20 percent cheaper to produce energy-wise, this is a gamechanger with shortages, drought and weather instability putting a drain on supplies. NSF, Dupont and Iowa State University supported the effort.

A cheaper way to go from salt water to safe water.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation.

Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.