Imagine this. You’re at the beach, so you pull out a filtering device and it instantly turns seawater into clean and drinkable water. Later, when you decide it’s time to head home, you turn around and use that same filter to charge your smartphone or your electric vehicle. It’s pretty hard to imagine, isn’t it? But researchers from Monash University, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, which is an independent agency of the Australian Federal Government (CSIRO) and the University of Texas at Austin, are hoping to make this a reality for millions.
Using a material called metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, these institutions and organizations are aiming to make it possible to produce more clean water, faster and more cheaply that would go a long way to help fill the supply gap and save lives.
MOFs are sponge-like material that have the largest internal surface area of any known substance, this material is able to capture, store and release chemicals at the atomic level. They are composed of designer synthetic crystals cooked up by chemists by stitching inorganic molecules together with organic molecules. Their structures can also be tweaked to do different things, such as capturing carbon dioxide or delivering drug therapies. In this case, the MOF is fashioned into a device to remove the salt and lithium ions from seawater and turn it into clean drinking water.
What this offers is a more energy-efficient, sustainable and cost-effective way to filter seawater, as well as other liquids, than current technologies – which opens the door for breakthrough advances in the water and mining industries. According to the World Health Organization, almost a third of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water and leads to millions of deaths each year related to inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. Therefore the use of MOFs in meeting global shortages of drinkable water is pretty obvious. And MOFs seem like they can also be beneficial in other areas. The material shows promise in meeting the power needs of Asia’s burgeoning populations, and the surging demand for green vehicles.
Studies show that Southeast Asians (which is composed of Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore, and a collection of islands) are some of the most rampant consumers of electronics. On a daily basis, they spend an average of 3.6 hours on mobile internet a day – which is the most in the world. In comparison, the average American spends about two hours and the British 1.8 hours. This has caused a spike in the global energy demand, which is on the rise due to advancements in technology and the widespread access to devices with Internet-connection abilities. One way Asian governments are trying to battle the sprawling population and modernization of energy sources, is by investing heavily to incentivize electric vehicle adoption. In fact, China bought nearly half of all electronic cars sold in 2017 in the hopes that their incentives will work in presenting the population with enticing options. The Chinese government hopes to have one in five new cars sold (which is amounts to a whopping 35 million) to be electric by 2025.
This is where MOFs come into play. Using MOFs as filters is not only a far simpler and cheaper than any other option, but is a far more accessible way to unlock a crucial resource. Seawater and brine are full of lithium ions, which makes up the batteries that power many electronic devices (as in your smartphone, tablet, and IoT gadgets) and electric vehicles. These types of batteries are very popular due to the fact that they can be recharged. However, with the extraction technology out on the fields today, digging up lithium ions can be a time consuming struggle. While the world is plenty with lithium, it’s unfortunately not being extracted and recycled quickly enough to match the ever growing demand for it. It is expected that the lithium market is at risk of being undersupplied for a number of years to come.
Researchers are looking into optimizing MOFs for commercial use for long term stability. They are also looking into advancing the capabilities of MOFs. Since this material is easily manipulated, researchers are hoping that it can also be used in processing more complex liquids, like agricultural runoff or the waste streams from mining operations. More so, because they can be easily manipulated, MOFs are not restricted to extracting lithium and drinking water. With further development, researchers believe that MOFs could also be used in processing more complex liquids, like agricultural runoff or the waste streams from mining operations. However, while these MOFs could be a complete game changer, advancing their capabilities will prove to require considerable work. Separating more complex ions could take up to 10 years before MOFs could be used in any sort of industrial context.
Even with technology rapidly advancing, for some it is still hard to image some traditional materials and methods from being replaced by innovative and complex technologies. It’s hard to pinpoint when a developing technology will come to market but we do know that it will take some time before it’s ready to start providing drinkable water, powering machines, or anything else. Despite this, it’s amazing to see the green direction of many upcoming tech projects.