Using graphene and 2D materials to desalinate sea water

To mark World Water Day 2021, Dr Premlal Balakrishna Pillai, Faculty of Science and Engineering Research Associate and Rahul Nair, Professor of Materials Physics, discuss how the University is using advanced materials to desalinate sea water.

One billion people across the globe currently lack regular access to safe drinking water and more than half of the world’s population may be facing a water crisis by 2050. 

One solution is to produce fresh water from our oceans (which cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface) by removing the dissolved salt, a process known as desalination. However, exorbitant operational costs and daunting environmental challenges, such as safe disposal of the waste produced, leave ocean desalination a futile option. 

Advanced materials, such as graphene and other 2D materials, have enabled us to create the next generation of desalination membranes because of their unique water transport properties.

Affordable solutions 

Analysis of desalination plants by geographic region reveals that most of the desalination facilities (>67% of total) are located in high-income countries and only a negligible proportion (0.33%) are in low-income countries.   

At The University of Manchester, we’re working with industrial partner LifeSaver®, a UK-based manufacturer of portable and reusable water filtration systems, to create portable water filters. These have significant potential to help communities facing water shortage due to industrial and biological pollution to local water resources. 

We want to make a global impact with our affordable safe drinking water solutions, especially in the most water-stressed countries such as India, Brazil, Singapore, and those in the Middle East. 

Developing next-generation desalination applications

Our mission is to develop high-permeance, self-cleaning desalination and nanofiltration membranes using graphene and other 2D materials, and unveil transformative technologies in water purification and beyond.

With the growing impact of climate change on modern cities' water supplies, the demand for sustainable and low-cost water purification technologies is evident. 2D materials-based membranes offer cutting-edge solutions to enhance the quality and availability of drinking water for those who need it most. We’re developing graphene-based membrane technology for desalination applications with various industrial partners.

With the substantial potential to reduce the energy budget and improve biofouling and chlorine resistance, the graphene-based membrane technology supports the UK’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 80% by 2050.

Transformative technology 

Currently our focus is on transferring the technology from lab to market by working closely with the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), which is dedicated to the fast-tracking of pilot research and innovations around graphene and other 2D materials. 

Our activities support the UK vision of developing affordable desalination technology and setting up smaller desalination units to meet the growing water demand in regions facing severe scarcity.