MIT Researchers Create Portable Desalination Unit to Generate Drinking Water

May 17, 2022

The unit relies on a technique called ion concentration polarization, a process that applies an electrical field to membranes placed above and below a channel of water. 

MIT researchers developed a portable desalination unit which can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water.

According to the statement released by MIT, the unit weighs less than 10 kilograms and requires less power to operate than a cell phone charger.

The portable desalination unit “can also be driven by a small, portable solar panel, which can be purchased online for around $50. It automatically generates drinking water that exceeds World Health Organization quality standards. The technology is packaged into a user-friendly device that runs with the push of one button.”

Electrical power removes particles from drinking water, so there is no need for replacement filters and according to MIT, may be deployed in remote and resource-limited areas, or to aid refugees fleeing natural disasters.

“This is really the culmination of a 10-year journey that I and my group have been on. We worked for years on the physics behind individual desalination processes, but pushing all those advances into a box, building a system, and demonstrating it in the ocean, that was a really meaningful and rewarding experience for me,” said senior author Jongyoon Han, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of biological engineering and member of the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) in the MIT statement.

The unit relies on a technique called ion concentration polarization, a process that applies an electrical field to membranes placed above and below a channel of water. 

The process removes both dissolved and suspended solids, allowing clean water to pass through the channel. Since it only requires a low-pressure pump, ICP uses less energy than other techniques.

Electrodialysis removes the remaining salt ions and according to the MIT statement regarding the research, once the salinity level and the number of particles decrease to specific thresholds, the device notifies the user that the water is drinkable.

The resulting water exceeded World Health Organization quality guidelines, according to MIT. As a result, the unit reduced the amount of suspended solids by at least a factor of 10, with the prototype generating drinking water at a rate of 0.3 liters per hour and a rate of 20 watt-hours per liter.

Han and the rest of the team eventually want to work on rapidly detecting contaminants in drinking water with future versions of the technology.

Along with Han, other authors include: other first author Junghyo Yoon, a research scientist in RLE; Hyukjin J. Kwon, a former postdoc; SungKu Kang, a postdoc at Northeastern University; and Eric Brack of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM). The research has been published online in Environmental Science and Technology.

The research was funded, in part, by the DEVCOM Soldier Center, the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), the Experimental AI Postdoc Fellowship Program of Northeastern University, and the Roux AI Institute.

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Cristina Tuser