Wave of the Future

A new process developed at UT just might be the future of clean water—for factories, homes, and even yachts.

Wave of the Future

What’s the most exciting new technology you can imagine? Teleportation, new organs grown in a lab, or even those long-overdue flying cars? How about clean drinking water? One UT researcher has discovered a revolutionary new way to desalinate sea water for a state—and a planet—that is slowly running out of clean water.

Richard Crooks didn’t become a chemist to save the world, or to lift nearly 3 billion people out of physical or economic water insecurity. He became a chemist because he likes it, and maybe because he had the right mentors. As a student at the University of Illinois, Crooks studied under a chemist named Larry Faulkner. He even conducted undergraduate research with Faulkner—a practice much rarer than it is now—and he was encouraged by his mentor to do his doctoral work with renowned chemist Allen Bard at the same university Faulkner would later lead as president from 1998-2006: The University of Texas at Austin.

“Besides running universities, Larry is a world-class electrochemist,” Crooks points out. He credits the UT president emeritus for igniting his love of science as an undergraduate. After earning his PhD, Crooks eventually landed back in Austin as a chemistry professor.

The bottom line is that energy and water are joined at the hip. If energy’s expensive, water’s going to be expensive.”

All that studying and good advice is paying off. A team led by Crooks has created and patented a new process for taking the salt out of seawater, one that is simpler and more efficient than any current technique. It’s a small microchip that uses an electrical jolt to separate the salt—and potentially the dangerous microscopic critters that dwell under the ocean—leaving behind less salt. The tiny burst of electricity, an amount that can be produced by a watch battery, is applied to a Y-shaped tube. This shoots partially-desalinated water through one human hair-sized branch, and all the junk into another.

The device can’t zap the Great Salt Lake just yet, but Crooks’ team is confident that it will be improved quickly, and it’s been catching the attention of scientists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists interested in the future of desalination.

Desalination matters because, despite that middle school science class fact that the Earth’s surface is 71 percent water, only three percent of the planet’s water is fresh water. Even that share—concentrated almost entirely in the U.S., Africa, and Russia’s Lake Baikal—is being contaminated more and more every day. That leaves us with saltwater, and lots of it.

crooksdeviceMost modern saltwater purification is done through a clunky, expensive process called reverse osmosis, in which saltwater is pushed through a filter that catches and separates the salt. It does not, however, kill those pesky germs, which require water that undergoes the process to be chlorinated. It’s an energy-inefficient tactic, Crooks says.

“The bottom line,” he says, “is that energy and water are joined at the hip. If energy’s expensive, water’s going to be expensive.” That’s why a new, more efficient process might hold the key to future desalination efforts. Even better, chlorine is a byproduct of the reaction—no need to mass-produce it elsewhere, then transport and add it to desalinated water. With nearly a third of the world’s population living in water-stressed areas, Crooks’ gadget could change the world.

But if it does, that change will come slowly.

“If you wanted a cup of coffee from our device, you’d be waiting several years,” he laughs. But other devices using Crooks’ process are already in development, and businesses are seeing the potential, even at this early stage. “Normally in science, you do something, you get a result, and maybe you can fix two out of five major problems,” he says. Not the case with this.

“Every time we look at this,” Crooks says, “it just wants to work.”

Fresh ideas

With government grants flowing and venture capitalists betting on his process, Crooks’ desalination chip might just hold the key to the future of our planet’s freshwater. In the meantime, there are other ways the chemist thinks his process might make an impact.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking)

The petroleum-extraction technique requires freshwater, which becomes brackish and useless in the process and is often dumped in empty wells, rather than being reused.

“If we could pull 20 or 30 percent of the salt out of that post-fracking water”—a range already within the capacity of Crooks’ process—“then they could reuse it,” he says.

Cooling towers

After reading about the new desalination technology, a Houston petrochemical businessman gave Crooks a call to talk about the giant cooling towers at his factory.

“Those cooling towers start out with fresh water,” Crooks explains. The evaporation of that freshwater helps cool power plants and factories. “Even freshwater has some salt in it. The water’s evaporating, but that little bit of salt isn’t. As a consequence, that water’s getting saltier and saltier.” In the past, factories diluted it with more freshwater. If Crooks’ process is scaled up, that water can be desalinated and recycled.

Yachts (yes, yachts)

A California yacht salesman pointed out that almost every yacht sold today has a tiny, inefficient reverse-osmosis pump.

If a reliable version of Crooks’ technology could be produced with improved desalination, the salesman told him, “You’d sell one to every yachtsman in the country.”

In-Home Use

Ultimately, the process could help improve water security for the world’s most at-risk inhabitants.

“You could have one in a home, and it could even provide just a gallon of drinking water a day,” Crooks says.

Illustration by David Plunkert. Photo: Crooks’ microchip-like device uses a small electric shock to partially desalinate seawater. Courtesy Richard Crooks.


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