Improving Access to Clean Water

Access to clean drinking water is something many take for granted. Crises like that of Flint, MI illuminate the fragility of our water infrastructure and how quickly access can be taken away. Even now, hundreds of millions of people around the world still lack access to adequate water.

Gaining access

But it’s not all negative. In the past 25 years, 2.6 billion people worldwide gained access to clean drinking water. This initiative stemmed from part of the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 1990, attempting to cut the number of global citizens without access to clean drinking water in half. While this goal was achieved in 2010, there are still about 663 million without proper water and sanitation.

(MORE: Check out powerful images from the Water Front project.)

The divide

So who doesn’t have clean drinking water? Overall, urban areas tend to have greater access due to improved water infrastructure systems set in place. Access in rural areas has improved over the years, but people in these areas are still hit the hardest.

The major divide is most visible when analyzing the numbers by regions. Africa, China, and India are among the hardest hit, making up the majority of the 663 million citizens without access to water.

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Battery technology for water desalination

Inspired by the principles of the sodium ion battery, Kyle Smith (right) is re-appropriating technology to make huge strides in water desalination.
Image: L. Brian Stauffer

Battery applications range from powering electronic devices to storing energy harvested from renewable sources, but batteries have a range of applications beyond the obvious. Now, researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are taking existing battery technology and applying it to efforts in water desalination.

The researchers have published the open access article in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society.

“We are developing a device that will use the materials in batteries to take salt out of water with the smallest amount of energy that we can,” said Kyle Smith, ECS member and assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “One thing I’m excited about is that by publishing this paper, we’re introducing a new type of device to the battery community and to the desalination community.”

Water desalination technologies have flourished as water needs have grown globally. This could be linked to growing populations or drought. However, because of technical hurdles, wide-spread implementation of these technologies has been difficult. However, the new technologies developed could combat that issue by using electricity to draw charged salt ions out of the water.

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In order to meet increasing water demands and combat the devastating effects of climate change, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is looking toward scientific innovation to help quench the Persian Gulf’s thirst.

Increasing water shortage in UAE

The first issue that leads to UAE water shortages is the essentially non-existent rainfall paired with the country’s high water consumption. The UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi receives only 75mm of rainfall annually, with the country as a whole receiving less than 100mm of rainfall each year . Pair that with a water consumption that is the highest in the world, coming in at 82 percent above global average, and the situation starts to look serous.

But that’s not the only issue in the UAE’s water supply problems. Climate change is making this land even hotter and drier than ever before, with a study stating that the effects of climate change may make the Persian Gulf uninhabitable by 2071.

(MORE: See how ECS scientists are addressing water and sanitation issues around the world.)

For this reason, the UAE is turning toward German and Japanese researchers, offering a $5 million reward to researchers who could help solve this problem.

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Stormwater as a Solution to Water Shortage

Communities are facing pressing water and sanitation issues across the globe. Recently, ECS tackled this issue through a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish the Science for Solving Society’s Problems Challenge. While ECS is working on a global level to encourage life-saving research in water and sanitation, researchers at Stanford University and working on innovative solutions to these issues in their own back yard.

Solving Sanitation

The water infrastructure that is currently in place in many semiarid and highly populated regions is reaching its limit. When taking recent droughts and population booms into consideration, many communities are beginning to fear water shortages. However, environmental engineer and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Senior Fellow, Richard Luthy, believes that answer to this problem has been right in front of us all along.

“These are billion-dollar problems,” said Luthy. “Meeting water needs in the future is going to depend a lot on how we reuse water and what we do with stormwater.”

Capture and Reuse Stormwater

Luthy is currently looking at ways to capture and treat stormwater to assist in alleviating current water supply issues in densely populated, semiarid environments. The environmental engineer is proposing a stormwater capture center that would be situated on 50-acres of currently unused space. Not only could the treatment plant help secure water infrastructure and the needs of the community, but it could also help the environment.

With stormwater comes runoff. This runoff is contaminated with harmful chemicals and often makes its way into oceans and streams. By recovering and cleaning a large portion of the stormwater, researchers believe that we will see a decrease in water pollution due to runoff.

Update: Making Poop Potable (Video)

gates-singalIn early January, we talked about Bill Gates’ initiative to make poop potable. As part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s mission to improve sanitation in underdeveloped countries, the business magnate and philanthropist took a sip of water that had been human waste just moments before.

The waste was being filtered through a treatment plant called the OmniProcessor. The plant was designed a part of the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Along with being able to make wastewater drinkable, the plant also produce usable electricity.

A Test Run in Africa

Now, the OminProcessor is going from its testing stages to real world application. The plant has taken its first trip to Dakar, Senegal, and while the technology is working, the real world is proving to pose some other challenges.

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Researcher from Stanford University have developed a new device that has made water-splitting more practical and boosted efficiency levels to an unprecedented 82 percent.

With just one catalyst, the novel water-splitting device can continuously generate hydrogen and oxygen for more than 200 hours with a steady input of just 1.5 volts of electricity.

Through this new device, researchers can produce renewable sources of clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

The Stanford researchers are using just one catalyst instead of the traditional two in water-splitting processes, which allows the cost to drop significantly.

“For practical water splitting, an expensive barrier is needed to separate the two electrolytes, adding to the cost of the device. But our single-catalyst water splitter operates efficiently in one electrolyte with a uniform pH,” said Haotian Wang, lead author of the study and graduate student at Stanford.

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Beth Schademann, ECS’s Publications Specialist, recently came across a Huffington Post article detailing some life-saving innovations in water purification.

A simple bag called the Fieldtrate Lite has made its way to isolated communities that lack clean water in an effort to save lives through improved sanitation.

The water filtering bag is a development of Singapore’s WateROAM, who specialize in portable water filtration systems. The Fieldtrate Lite filters dirty water though membranes, turning it into potable water in a very short period of time. The bag is specifically appealing for disaster relief operations and rural communities without access to clean water.

“Our vision is to build a world where no man shall face prolonged thirst,” said David Pong, WateROAM’s chief executive.

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The Real Science of an Alkali Metal Explosion

You may remember the classic alkali metal explosion demonstration in one of your early chemistry classes. Many educators use this experiment to show the volatile power of chemistry. The thought was that the unstable reaction was caused by the ignition of hydrogen gas, but scientists in the Czech Republic have found new information behind this classic demonstration by using high-speed video.

The researchers began investigating the science behind this experiment by dropping a sodium-potassium alloy droplet into water. From there, they recorded the explosion with a high-speed camera that is capable of capturing 10,000 frames per second.

Of course, there’s a video.

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Member Spotlight – Ryohei Mori

The aluminum-air battery has the potential to serve as a short-term power source for electric vehicles.Image: Journal of The Electrochemical Society

The aluminum-air battery has the potential to serve as a short-term power source for electric vehicles.
Image: Journal of The Electrochemical Society

A new long-life aluminum-air battery is set to resolve challenges in rechargeable energy storage technology, thanks to ECS member Ryohei Mori.

Mori’s development has yielded a new type of aluminum-air battery, which is rechargeable by refilling with either salt or fresh water.

The research is detailed in an open access article in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, where Mori explains how he modified the structure of the previous aluminum-air battery to ensure a longer battery life.

Theoretically, metal-air technology can have very high energy densities, which makes it a promising candidate for next-generation batteries that could enable such things as long-range battery-electric vehicles.

However, the long-standing barrier of anode corrosion and byproduct accumulation have halted these batteries from achieving their full potential. Dr. Mori’s recently published paper, “Addition of Ceramic Barriers to Aluminum-Air batteries to Suppress By-product Formation on Electrodes,” details how to combat this issue.

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Making Poop Potable

The OmniProcessor is the ultimate example of that old expression: one man's trash is another man's treasure.Image: YouTube/Gates Notes

The OmniProcessor is the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
Image: YouTube/Gates Notes

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working to turn poop into drinking water with this ingenious new machine.

As part of their effort to improve sanitation in poor countries, the Gates Foundation has helped give flight to an OmniProcessor that burns human waste to produce water and electricity.

How does it work? Check out the video to see the process.

But here’s the big question – why do we need to turn waste into drinking water and electricity?

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