What is 200 times stronger than steel and makes drinking water from seawater?

In 2010, Soviet-born Dutch-British physicist Sir Andre Konstantin Geim and Soviet-born Dutch-British physicist Sir Konstantin Sergeevich Novoselov, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their ‘groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene’. Jesus de La Fuente – CEO Graphenea: ’Graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice’. It’s actually one atom thick and the thinnest material known and may be the strongest material existing.

Last month (April 2017) a British team of researchers from the University of Manchester has created a graphene-based sieve capable of removing salt from seawater which could aid the millions of people worldwide who have no access to clean drinking water. They made the breakthrough by controlling the size of pores in a membrane made from the wonder material graphene, which made it possible to filter out salt from water and making it safe to drink. Now, this graphene-based membrane could be used in countries that do not have the financial infrastructure to fund large desalination plants.

Trying to desalinate seawater (the process which extracts salt from salt water) is nothing new but has always been done in a limited form and was never achievable on a large scale until the modern era. In his book and treatise ‘Meteorology’, Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle wrote that ‘salt water, when it turns into vapour, becomes sweet and the vapour does not form salt water again when it condenses’ and he also found out that if you put a vessel made of wax in the sea, fasten its mouth in such a way to prevent any water getting in, the water that percolates through the wax vessel is sweet, so this system worked like a filter.

Some big disadvantages of older desalination techniques are e.g. the waste disposal of cleaning chemicals and also that the brine, a side product of desalination, is pumped back into the sea. These cause detrimental consequences, poisoning, suffocating and killing sea animals, organisms and plants.

Graphene sieves are a cheaper way of making salt water drinkable and they could lead to a more effective and less energy-intensive desalination process, but will there still be brine disposal in our oceans?

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