This post is part of the Roadmap To The Future Series. Roadmap To The Future explores innovative industry trends and breakthroughs in science, entertainment, and technology. This series is sponsored by Verizon.
The latest technology for removing salt from seawater, developed by Lockheed Martin, will be a game-changer for the industry, according to Ray O. Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer of the jet and weapons manufacturer.
Desalination technology is used in regions of the world, particularly developing countries, where fresh water is not available. Water from oceans or rivers is diverted into treatment plants where the salt is removed and clean drinking water is produced through a process called reverse osmosis.
Imagine a tank with seawater on one side and pure water on the other, separated by a filter with billions of tiny holes. Lots of pressure on the salty side pushes water through faster than the salt, so fresh water comes out the other end.
The problem is that current filters use plastic polymers that require an immense of amount of energy (800 to 1,000 pounds per square inch of pressure) to push water through.
Lockeed has developed a special material that doesn’t need as much energy to drag water through the filter.
This special material is a film of a special structure of carbon, a honeycomb lattice called graphene. Because of its structure the sheet is dotted with holes that are one nanometer or less. These holes between carbon atoms trap the salt and other impurities.
Graphene researchers won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for developing the wonder-material.
In addition, the film is super thin — just a single atom thick — so that the water simply “pops through the very very small holes that we make in the graphene and leaves the salt behind,” John Stetson, the chief technologist at Lockheed for this initiative told Business Insider.
Lockheed anticipates that their filters will be able to provide clean drinking water “at a fraction of the cost of industry-standard reverse osmosis systems,” their press release says. Water-poor regions of the world will be the first to benefit.
The perforated graphene is aptly called Perforene. Lockheed has the U.S. Patent on this technology and is currently pumping out “pretty big quantities of it” at Lockheed’s advanced technology centre in Palo Alto, California, according to Stetson.
The Perforene has a smoky grey colour film that is translucent, even though its carbon, because it is so thin. It’s also about 1,000 times stronger than steel, but still has a permeability that is about 100 times greater than the best competitive membrane out in the market, said Stetson.
Perforene isn’t a game-changer, yet. Lockheed is still in prototype stage. One challenge is figuring out how to scale up production. Graphene is cheap but it’s very delicate because of its thinness, also making it difficult to transfer.
Stetson says Lockheed is targeting to have a prototype to test in a reverse osmosis plant by 2014 or 2015, where they would simply be able to “plug in” the Peforene to replace the existing filter.
The great news is that this technology is not just limited to desalination plants. It can potentially be used for pharmaceutical filtration, dialysis, and gas separation, to a name a few.
The possibilities are endless.