If you could see it with the naked eye, it would look like mesh chicken wire. But, it’s only a nanometer thick (one billionth of a meter) so the only way to see this distinct patter is under a microscope. Yet despite its lack in mass, this miraculous material is a thousand times stronger than steel.
We’re talking about graphene.
Graphene is a relatively newly discovered material, and is comprised of sheets of pure carbon rings linked together. This ultra-strong and durable material is currently the focus of global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin. But not for weapons. (That we know of at least). In a new social project, Lockheed is aiming to develop a graphene filter that would allow for the filtering of salt water into freshwater, more cheaply and efficiently.
Patented as ‘Perforene,’ the proposed graphene filters would consist of a thin membrane with expertly placed, microscopic holes. The holes, a nanometer or less in diameter, would allow water molecules to pass through with ease, while trapping the sodium and chlorine ions that make salt water salty and non-potable.
While over 70% of the Earth is covered in water, less than 3% of this is freshwater. This leaves roughly ¾ of a billion people without access to clean drinking water, according to the UN. With water access and scarcity becoming a major global issue, competition and conflict for the currently limited and unevenly distributed resource could cause unrest and even armed conflict. Problems with access to water can in turn also affect food and energy supplies.
Current desalination processes are extremely expensive and highly inefficient. The energy intensive process of reverse osmosis requires the repeated filtering of salt water under high-pressure conditions, while other desalination measures such as capturing evaporated steam require repeated heating and cooling – again highly energy intensive. The proposed Perforene sheets would be low cost, low energy measures to efficiently filter salt from salt water.
Lockheed Martin hopes to have a working prototype by the end of 2013, and is currently looking for commercialization partners.
If successful, the proposed filters could have a revolutionary effect on global health and living conditions as more people gain access to potable water. Graphene seems to be a truly remarkable material – we wonder what else it can do.