This portable device can turn saltwater into drinking water at the tou

Here’s a mind-boggling stat: There are more than 326 million trillion gallons of water on Earth. But less than 3% of that water is fresh water. And more than two-thirds of that water is locked up in glaciers, polar ice caps, far beneath the Earth’s surface, or otherwise unavailable. In short? Only 0.5% of Earth’s water is actually available for us to drink.

This may be about to change, however, as MIT researchers have developed a portable, user-friendly device that can turn saltwater into drinking water at the touch of a button. Their research was recently published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology. For now, the prototype fits into a regular-size suitcase and can process 1 liter per hour; but when the product is fully developed, it will be able to filter 10 times that amount— making it a vital tool for remote island communities, seafaring cargo ships, and even refugee camps located near water.

Design concept renderings [Images: courtesy Kevin Tang]

The desalination unit is not the first device that can filter saltwater, but existing devices are costly and require a lot of power to operate. They also rely on filters, which can be expensive and need to be changed regularly.

By comparison, this unit needs less power to operate than a cell phone charger and can be powered by a small solar panel attached to its exterior. It also works without ever needing to replace a filter because there simply isn’t one. Instead, the device uses two kinds of electric fields to remove particles like salt molecules, as well as bacteria and viruses.

The working prototype [Photo: courtesy Junghyo Yoon]

Its real innovation is that it was designed to be used by regular people. A tube feeds the saltwater into the machine; the water is filtered inside the device, then another tube extracts the clean water into a separate vessel. On the outside, the device has only three visible buttons — the first one powers it, the second starts the process, the third one stops it. A screen notifies the user when the water is drinkable.

All of this means that the device could be used in areas with limited resources — provided the team can lower its cost. For now, that’s around $ 4,000 to $ 6,000, which is similar to other units out there. But Junghyo Yoon, a scientist at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics who developed the device and coauthored the study, projects that they can bring it down to around $ 1,500, which would make it more accessible to NGOs.

Much of this will come down to the final design and fabrication of the device. Yoon says the current prototype sits inside a regular suitcase he bought online, but he’s hoping for a $ 1 million investment that can help him take the product out of the lab and into a factory where he can experiment with different fabrication processes like injection molding.

A final prototype could be ready by the end of next year — and bring us one drop closer to unlocking those 326 million trillion gallons of water.

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