"Wherever you have a liquid-vapor surface, there is going to be evaporation and condensation," Karnik says. "So this probability is pretty universal, as it defines what water molecules do at all such surfaces."
Getting in the way of flow
One of the simplest ways to remove salt from water is by boiling and evaporating the water separating it from salts, then condensing it as purified water. But this method is energy-intensive, requiring a great deal of heat.
Karnik's group developed a desalination membrane that mimics the boiling process, but without the need for heat. The razor-thin membrane contains nanoscale pores that, seen from the side, resemble tiny tubes. Half of each tube is hydrophilic, or water-attracting, while the other half is hydrophobic, or water-repellant.
As water flows from the hydrophilic to the hydrophobic side, it turns from liquid to vapor at the liquid-vapor interface, simulating water's transition during the boiling process. Vapor molecules that travel to the liquid solution on the other end of the nanopore can either condense into it or bounce off of it. The membrane allows higher water-flow rates if more molecules condense, rather than bounce.
Designing an efficient desalination membrane requires an understanding of what might keep water from flowing through it. In the case of the researchers' membrane, they found that resistance to water flow came from two factors: the length of the nanopores in the membrane and the probability that a molecule would bounce, rather than condense.
In experiments with membranes whose nanopores varied in length, the team observed that greater pore length was the main factor impeding water flow that is, the greater the distance a molecule has to travel, the less likely it is to traverse the m
|Contact: Abby Abazorius|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology