Water and Desalination

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Water scarcity is present worldwide in diverse societies and settings, and the situation is continuing to worsen: our renewable freshwater supply from net precipitation over land is fixed, whereas world population will rise to 9 billion by 2050 from 3 billion in 1960. Further, the world’s population is increasingly an urban population amounting to more than 50% today and on track to reach 64% of the developing world and 86% of the developed world by 2050. The projected impact of global climate change and rising standards of living compound these challenges. The provision of water for the world’s diverse populations will require energy-efficient, low-carbon technologies for creating potable water from saline sources (the oceans, in particular) and from impaired water supplies (by recycling of used water). Increased urbanization implies that infrastructure-scale solutions will be essential; but, in addition, the rural developing world faces an urgent need for small-scale, locally-powered water purification systems.

Our research group focuses on desalination and related areas of water treatment. We seek to improve the energy efficiency of desalination systems and to reduce their environmental footprint. We aim to develop solutions that are economically viable and industrially useful. We do this by applying the principles of thermodynamics, transport phenomena, and separation science to both current and emerging water treatment processes. (We also do some work in classical heat transfer.)

Our current research encompasses: reverse osmosis (both counterflow and batch technologies); electrodialysis and brackish groundwater utilization; selective separations; resource recovery from brines (including salts, metals, and industrial chemicals); chemical-free control of membrane fouling; switchable solvent separations; and assessments of primary and secondary energy efficiency. We have also worked on membrane distillation systems, thermophysical properties of saline waters, nanofiltration, humidification-dehumidification desalination, forward osmosis, pressure-retarded osmosis, hybrid cycles, solar desalination, scale formation, and treatment of waste water from oil/gas operations and other industrial processes. The links in the right-hand column of this page give details of some of this work.

Our research sponsors in recent years have included: the US Department of Energy; the US Bureau of Reclamation; MathWorks; Idaho National Lab; SUSTech; the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science; KmX Membrane Technologies Corp.; the Singapore-MIT Alliance in Research and Technology; the MIT-Tata program; the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals through the Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy; the MASDAR Institute in Abu Dhabi; the MIT Deshpande Center for Technology and Innovation; the MIT MISTI program; friends of MIT; and others. In addition, students in our group have benefited from a wide range of fellowship awards over the years.

Do not drink the water

Fountain on the Monument to Philip IV, Plaza de Oriente, Madrid, Spain