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Lockheed Martin moves beyond weapons to clean water with graphene

Visitors look at the Lockheed Martin's stand at the Eurosatory 2012 defence and security exhibition in Villepinte near Paris on June 11, 2012.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has discovered a way to make desalination 100 times more efficient. And that could have a big impact on bringing clean drinking water to the developing world.

The process is called reverse osmosis, and the material used is graphene -- a lot like the stuff you smudge across paper with your pencil.

"This stuff is so thin and so strong, it's a remarkable compound, it is one atom thick," says Lockheed Martin senior engineer John Stetson. "If you have a piece of paper that represents the thickness of graphene, the closest similar membrane is about the height of a room."

The new material essentially acts as a sieve, allowing water to pass though while salts remain behind. Graphene could make for smaller, cheaper plants that turn salt water into drinking water, but it could also have uses in war zones as a portable water desalinator.

"Lockheed really is concerned with the broadest aspects of global security [and] maintaining safe environments and that includes water," says Stetson.

To hear about more graphene applications, click on the audio player above.

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.
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I am a bit behind on my podcast listening. I was incredibly saddened to hear that Marketplace Tech has been duped. Sadly, desalination is not a filtration problem, it is a chemical problem. Thermodynamics, not kinetics, rule. When salt is dissolved in water, energy is released and entropy increases. In order to make fresh water from seawater, that energy debt has to be repaid. Energy must be conserved. Current desalination membranes operate at below 2 kWh/cubic meter of water purified at approximately 50% recovery from sea water (about 3.5% salt). The minimum energy requirement under this configuration is around 1.1 kWh/m3. The minimum second law energy requirement for removal of salt from seawater is less than this, but is above 500 Wh/m3. There simply is no 100 fold energy improvement to be had. There is not even a solid factor of 2 energy improvement remaining in desalination. The Lockheed scientists are simply incorrect in their claims and you have misreported a potential breakthrough reduction of energy requirements for desalination. All RO operates at well below the over 600 kWh/cubic meter that simple boiling to recover salt requires, but that is by no means the current state of the art even for thermal desalination. This is well described in the scientific literature and strongly suggest the work of Yale's Elimelech. He has a Youtube video that well describes the desalination problem and the limitations of technology that predates substantially the recent Lockheed press release. Lockheed is not alone. MIT researchers similarly based claims about carbon nanotube membranes that neglect the same fundamental physics and chemistry of desalination. The patent that Lockheed touted in their press releases is prophetic only. No examples showing an energy improvement are offered. It is sad that your fact checkers failed to catch this one. You now have planted the image that a true breakthrough in the critical areas of energy and water is possible when it simply is not.

This is bigger than a new oil patch discovery. Growing food and having clean water are now real possibilities in the third world and remote locations. Now the the water just needs to be purified to make it ready for consumption.

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