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Source: greenphotoKK/istock

Scientists Use Solar Energy To Transform Seawater Into Drinking Water

By Maria Cook

Earth is a planet covered in water. Yet amazingly, less than three percent of that water is drinkable freshwater. Of that three percent, around 68 percent of our freshwater is completely inaccessible to humans, locked within icecaps and glaciers. As the climate continues to change and droughts become more common, scientists are seeking ways to access more water from oceans, where 97 percent of our planet's water resides.

It has been possible, for some time, to extract drinkable water from seawater. But the only two processes for doing so were sorely inefficient, using far too much energy. But now, thanks to a breakthrough in the process known as distillation, scientists are able to collect drinkable water from the ocean via solar power. This breakthrough couldn't have come at a better time, considering that climate change has caused droughts to become more common in recent years. 

Prior to recent findings, seawater could only be "made into" fresh water via distillation or membrane distillation. Regular distillation involved boiling salt water and collecting the steam, then processing that steam through a condensing coil. The heat needed to boil the water consumed a large amount of energy, making the process inefficient. 

In membrane distillation, hot and cold ocean water was pushed through a porous membrane, and the vapor from the process was collected. This used only slightly less electrical energy than regular distillation. The inefficiency of these processes meant that their usefulness was limited. Freshwater could not be extracted on a large enough scale to meet the demands of an increasingly water-starved population.