While the graphene applications discussed so far address one or two of the issues, it seems that thin films of graphene oxide may be able to provide the whole solution. Miao Yu and his team at the University of South Carolina have fabricated membranes that deliver very high flux and do not foul. Fabrication is handled by adding a thin layer of graphene to an existing membrane, as distinct from creating a membrane out of graphene, something which is far harder to do and almost impossible to scale up.
Getting a high flux is crucial to desalination applications where up to 50% of water costs are caused by pressurising water for transmission through a membrane. Performance tests reveal around 100% membrane recovery simply by surface water flushing and pure water flux rates (the amount of water that the membrane transmits) are two orders of magnitude higher than conventional membranes. This is the result of the spacing between the graphene plates that allows the passage of water molecules via nanoscale capillary action but not contaminants.
Non-fouling is crucial for all applications, and especially in oil/water separation as most of what is pumped out of oil wells is water mixed with a little oil.
According to G2O Water, the UK company commercialising Yu’s technology, the increased flux rates are expected to translate directly into energy savings of up to 90% for seawater desalination. Energy savings on that scale have the potential to change the economics of desalination with smaller plants powered by renewable energy and addressing community needs replacing the power hungry desalination behemoths currently under construction such as the Carlsbad Project. This opens the possibility of low-cost water in areas of the world where desalination is currently too expensive or there is insufficient demand to justify large scale infrastructure.
While more work is required to build a robust and cost-effective filtration system, the new ability to align sheets of graphene so that water but nothing else is transmitted may be the simple game-changer that allows the world to finally address the growing water crisis.