Join 3,524 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Tony Stark, eat your heart out.
March 15, 2013 2:29 PM   Subscribe

Defense contractor takes break from F-35 JSF, finds a way to eliminate 99% of the energy cost of desalination. Lockheed-Martin has developed a way to craft sheets of carbon a single atom thick, which can filter the salt (and just about anything else) from water with a tiny fraction of the energy required by current processes. "Lockheed officials see other applications for Perforene as well, from dialysis in healthcare to cleaning chemicals from the water used in hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," of oil and gas wells." Previously.
posted by Morriscat (67 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
First graphene and now this. Is there no end to your utility, carbon?! We named an entire branch of chemistry after you so that you would play with the other elements, but nooooo, you want to keep showing off how much you can do all by your lonesome. Also, Diamond Age.
posted by gwint at 2:35 PM on March 15, 2013 [20 favorites]


Isn't this just graphene?
posted by ymgve at 2:35 PM on March 15, 2013


Notaro said Lockheed expects to have a prototype by the end of the year for a filter that could be used as a drop-in replacement for filters now used in reverse osmosis plants.

Dang. That's a huge deal, not having to retool your entire operation.

Also, shooting for commercialization in 2014/2015? Usually a graphene breakthrough story ends with the impression that you'll maybe see something on the market in a decade. Lockheed-Martin money makes things move fast.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:37 PM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hmmm. But won't the filters get... Clogged? I mean, we used to go through 40 micron millipore filters like they were potato chips. Am I missing something?
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 2:38 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Isn't this just graphene?

It's graphene with specific perforations about 1 nanometer across. I would guess "perforene" is probably a portmanteau of "perforated graphene."
posted by chimaera at 2:38 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Because the sheets of pure carbon known as graphene are so thin - just one atom in thickness - it takes much less energy to push the seawater through the filter with the force required to separate the salt from the water, they said." - Article.

Isn't this just graphene?


Yup.
posted by Atreides at 2:38 PM on March 15, 2013


Ahh, Diamond Age... the pinnacle of Stephenson's career. But no, you're right. It IS just graphene. The trick is that they've managed (or are currently navigating) the tricky engineering to turn "Well, theoretically it could... " into "Look, see, it actually DOES ..."
posted by Morriscat at 2:40 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is as exciting as it is frustrating. From the outside (very far outside), it seems as though defense contractors are, essentially, engineering firms. If those companies are locked in a death grip with the government, it would seem that the least that could be done would be to subsidize their existence through constructive technologies.

My sense was that the easiest path would be to try to shift funding away from tanks and planes toward space ships (since NASA is already a military entity). Environmental endeavors, on the other hand, are very exciting.

The frustrating part is that I don't think that any kind of meaningful shift towards the above will ever actually take place.
posted by Hypnotic Chick at 2:42 PM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


So this potentially solves the problem of fresh water access around the world. Amazing. We should be pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into R&D so we can get more miracle solutions to our big global problems. What a lot of work it is to try to bring people and nations together to enact painful coordinated measures that no one can agree on. It's so much more efficient to find the technology that will allow us to transcend our problems, to eliminate their very existence.
posted by shivohum at 2:42 PM on March 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


I keep reading wonderful things about graphene. Why do I get the horrible, creeping feeling that, all of a sudden, graphene will mysteriously become prohibitively expensive and terribly difficult to manufacture?
posted by TDavis at 2:43 PM on March 15, 2013


I'm curious as to how these don't tear like tissue paper. I mean, graphene's strong relative to other materials, but it's still as thin as thin gets and water is pretty damn heavy and forceful.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:44 PM on March 15, 2013


Even a truly evil corporation can do something good once in a while.
posted by double block and bleed at 2:46 PM on March 15, 2013


I keep reading wonderful things about graphene. Why do I get the horrible, creeping feeling that, all of a sudden, graphene will mysteriously become prohibitively expensive and terribly difficult to manufacture?

Nah, like every other miracle product, it will end up causing cancer. Or don't you read the internets?

Non-snarkily, this is very exciting. I work with a firm that is starting to get into reclaiming fracking water (and other polluted/saline water sources) so this is definitely something we could be involved in eventually.
posted by emjaybee at 2:47 PM on March 15, 2013


The membranes don't have to be a foot across like some diaphanous thing. They could be just a whole bunch of them a dozen or hundred um across which would still have millions of nm holes in each one in some metal sieve plate that's easy to handle and replace.
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:48 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


since NASA is already a military entity

NASA has never been, or ever will be, a military entity. They are a civilian agency. The military has other guys that deal with space.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 2:51 PM on March 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


good technology.

Even a truly evil corporation can do something good once in a while.

To be clear. Manufactured scarcity is the slavery of the now. That is, it's the incomprehensible evil that future generations will look back on and wonder what the hell was going on in our hearts.
posted by philip-random at 2:52 PM on March 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


FUND FILTERS, NOT BOMBS.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:54 PM on March 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wonder what percentage of NASA contractors are also military contractors...
posted by jim in austin at 2:56 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


When this actually comes to market, I wonder if we can make Los Angeles start putting water BACK into the Colorado River system.
posted by Morriscat at 2:58 PM on March 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


I really this doesn't become the fracking industry's panacea and then it turns out the filtered water turns out to turn us into giant cockroaches or something like that.
posted by angrycat at 3:00 PM on March 15, 2013


Does anyone know how graphene breaks down vs plastics? I'm concerned that this new material will become the next ubiquitous trash item that far outlives its functional lifetime.
posted by The Power Nap at 3:01 PM on March 15, 2013


Unfortunately, his decision to create four different versions of the filter for very different operating environments on one all purpose frame will doom the project to massive cost overruns.
posted by Drinky Die at 3:05 PM on March 15, 2013 [10 favorites]


There are environmental problems with desalification other than just energy costs. For one thing, what do you do with all the salt? If you just pump it back into the ocean near your desalification plant, then you spike salinity levels, with all sorts of harmful consequences.

Ain't no free lunches in the water game, alas.
posted by yoink at 3:07 PM on March 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hmmm. But won't the filters get... Clogged? I mean, we used to go through 40 micron millipore filters like they were potato chips. Am I missing something?
Did you continuously cross-flush them? In something like desalination, you can happily use half or more of the input fluid to wash the filter, and then just throw it back into the source body of water, somewhat saltier than it was when it came out. And you can also try to get most of the gunk out of the water before you run it into the fine filter, so what you're washing off is mostly soluble salt.

Reverse osmosis systems already deal with this issue.

But I don't know enough chemistry to know whether the ions will want to stick to the graphene more than they do to anything else. I'd think not, since I don't think it has any big, prominent charges sticking out of it.
posted by Hizonner at 3:08 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


+ The Power Nap Pure carbon is chemically inert, so... it DOESN'T break down. Ever. It's more likely that things like this will become like medieval iron, too difficult to make and too useful to do anything but infinitely recycle it. + yoink this is more of a problem when what you're filtering from the water doesn't have its own uses. Salt is not one of those things.
posted by Morriscat at 3:09 PM on March 15, 2013


Cool! This is convenient, since Lockheed Martin just took over as the main contractor for the U.S. Antarctic Program, and McMurdo Station gets all its water from a reverse-osmosis desalination plant. I hope they'll make the switch, since water is one of the station's bigger energy costs.
posted by fermion at 3:13 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is that a problem, yoink? Just looked and the world uses 281,000,000 tons of salt per year (PDF). Surely it could get absorbed into that demand in one way or another?
posted by forgetful snow at 3:13 PM on March 15, 2013


Even a truly evil corporation can do something good once in a while.

Shhh, they'll take it away from us!
posted by the noob at 3:15 PM on March 15, 2013


SEA WATER CONTAINS GOLD US OBAMA GOVERNMENT AND UN ARE GOING TO SWITCH TO PROPRIETARY GOLD RESERVE MONEY PROGRAM GUARDED BY F-35 BLACK HELICOPTERS WAKE UP SHEEPLE
posted by cthuljew at 3:15 PM on March 15, 2013 [18 favorites]


I can't speak to graphene and perforene specifically, but there are some known problems with carbon products, specifically carbon nanotubes. We should probably be careful until we can be reasonably sure this stuff doesn't cause some horrible forms of cancer.
posted by ensign_ricky at 3:17 PM on March 15, 2013


Honestly, you could save more lives with clean drinking water than you ever could with missiles.
posted by klangklangston at 3:19 PM on March 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


There is the idea of the "peace dividend" of the 90's, where industry could focus on technologies with actual humane applications following the end of the Cold War...
posted by KokuRyu at 3:19 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Honestly, you could save more lives with clean drinking water than you ever could with missiles.

But would they be American lives?
posted by cthuljew at 3:21 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Carbon nanotubes cause problems because they're small enough to enter cells. Graphene wouldn't have that problem.
posted by empath at 3:23 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"But would they be American lives?"

Over the course of the next century, yeah. Combine global warming with resource wars and diminishing fresh water? Avoiding that before it happens, along with the ability to cost-effectively supply water to population centers like LA without having to engage in environmentally destructive alternatives, it'd save American lives in more than one way.
posted by klangklangston at 3:24 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is that a problem, yoink? Just looked and the world uses 281,000,000 tons of salt per year (PDF). Surely it could get absorbed into that demand in one way or another?

It has certainly been a problem with many of the desalination plants currently in operation. I suppose it might be possible to "harvest" the salt, but I imagine that adds to the cost of the process and with so much salt being added to the market your chances of recovering the costs by selling the salt steadily diminish.

But oversalination of the local environment is only one of the environmental problems of desalination plants--there is also simply the fact that you're sucking vast quantities of seawater--full of microscopic marine life--into what is essentially a highly efficient killing machine. I'm not sure what can be done about that.
posted by yoink at 3:24 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here's a small piece from Scientific American on the environmental problems of desalification.
posted by yoink at 3:26 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sodium has an ionic radius of about 1.0 Å, chloride is about 1.8 Å, and the radius of water is about 1.4 Å (though the shape's a bit wonky and deformable). That doesn't leave much room for tolerances. I assume sodium stays behind with chloride due to charge, but I'm suspicious of the energetics. I'd like to see something published before I start heralding the bright future of potable water.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:39 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does this mean we can clean up the Pacific gyre of plastics? Man, the future is not looking too bad.
posted by jadepearl at 4:02 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think you get tables salt as the discharge from the osmosis filters, more like a super salty water or sludge. Hard salt would be easy to dispose, hey start building a salt mine. Thousands of gallons of extra salty sludge water is inconvenient, hey maybe create a bunch of dead seas?
posted by sammyo at 4:03 PM on March 15, 2013


Meta filters FTW
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:04 PM on March 15, 2013 [9 favorites]


what do you do with all the salt? If you just pump it back into the ocean near your desalification plant, then you spike salinity levels, with all sorts of harmful consequences.

You're not adding salt to the ocean, because you're sending the fresh water back into the ocean too (albeit by a more circumspect route), so the problem would be dispersal - you're lowering the salinity in some areas (the added freshwater runoff) and raising it in others (salt disposal).

I propose building the desalination plant and the water treatment plants side by side, so waste salt can be disposed of in outgoing treated water, raising their salinity to ocean-neutral. (If these filters are so good, it won't much matter* if some of the treated water ends up in the desalination plant intakes).

Of course, you could plan your infrastructure like this in Sim City, but the real world isn't so accommodating. :-/

*Ok, maybe there are contaminents that would get through the filters, I wouldn't know.
posted by anonymisc at 4:16 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


the world uses 281,000,000 tons of salt per year

If you desalinize enough seawater to meet 0.1% of the world's water needs, that's about how much salt you would get.

Don't get me wrong, 0.1% of the world's water needs is not at all insignificant! That's enough for like 7 million people! A lot fewer if they're Americans, though.
posted by aubilenon at 4:52 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cool! Now we don't have to worry about polluting our fresh water! Factories can just dump their waste into rivers, lakes, and oceans; it won't matter. What a great cost savings for them!
posted by five fresh fish at 5:07 PM on March 15, 2013


... and what's all this do to the push for low-sodium diets?
posted by philip-random at 5:15 PM on March 15, 2013


"...there is also simply the fact that you're sucking vast quantities of seawater--full of microscopic marine life--into what is essentially a highly efficient killing machine. I'm not sure what can be done about that."

That's an interesting point, yoink, and not something I've ever heard discussed before. Most cities and their desalinization plants are located on the edge of continental shelves, and that's where most of the sea life is too. I wonder if there's been any studies of places like the Persian Gulf, where they have a lot of desalinization plants operating in a fairly isolated pocket of the Indian Ocean.
posted by Kevin Street at 5:28 PM on March 15, 2013


Officials say firm has patented process

I totally called this.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:16 PM on March 15, 2013


NASA has never been, or ever will be, a military entity. They are a civilian agency. The military has other guys that deal with space.

Well, you know.. NASA has always been, and ever will be, a beard for the military and defence contractors.
posted by Chuckles at 6:45 PM on March 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Graphene doesn't have the EHS or carcinogen concerns of carbon nanotubes. Nanotube hazards are essentially the same as asbestos hazards; with nanotubes of certain lengths (short and light enough to be aspirated deep into the alveoli, long enough to not be broken down by your immune system), they are thought to cause long term inflammation and mesothelioma-type cancers.

True graphene is basically graphite exfoliated into single sheets. I say "true" graphene, because a lot of the graphene on the market today is really just graphite microdomains. The material is still pretty new, and should be studied carefully, but it is thought that graphene doesn't present the size/shape/aspect ratio hazards of carbon nanotubes, and so should be much more innocuous.

These used filters would essentially be waste graphite. In fact, they'd likely break down faster than graphite since they are already in single atomic layers. There may be some unforeseen consequences due to nanoscale effects, but I'm more comfortable with this than I am with fluoropolymers that do not break down.

I'd want to see it function before buying what Lockheed is selling.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:29 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder how much pressure is needed to pump water through the current filters. If this requires so much less pressure it might be something that would work on a small scale using some kind of gravity fed device that remote coastal areas could use, they'd just need a human powered pump or a ladder and a bucket to feed the thing. I also don't know if it would need to be a finer filter to make it potable, I'm just thinking out loud.
posted by VTX at 7:33 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Refreshing to see Lockheed working to quench mankind's thirst for water instead of blood. For more info, see the patent application publication PDF.
posted by sundog at 8:15 PM on March 15, 2013


I wonder if there's been any studies of places like the Persian Gulf, where they have a lot of desalinization plants operating in a fairly isolated pocket of the Indian Ocean.

Not exactly what you were looking for, but What's a Lake Doing in the Middle of the Desert?
posted by porpoise at 8:28 PM on March 15, 2013


We can take the super salty sludge water from the desalination plants, ship it to the arctic to mix with the freshwater melting off of the glaciers to keep it from stopping the Global Ocean Conveyor.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:34 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Not exactly what you were looking for, but What's a Lake Doing in the Middle of the Desert?"

That's a fascinating thing. In a more regular environment, the wastewater from the city would find its way down into the water table. But in the desert there is no water table, so it... comes right back up?
posted by Kevin Street at 9:34 PM on March 15, 2013


I wonder if there isn't a way to turn the salt left over from the process into building material?
posted by MrVisible at 11:00 PM on March 15, 2013


"I'm curious as to how these don't tear like tissue paper."

Graphene stretches like rubber, but it's as hard as diamonds. No wonder that Lockheed are apparently good at working with it. Sounds like the kind of thing you'd want to fab a stealth plane out of.

Given that they need to make small, uniform holes in the graphene, it seems to me that we're talking about what is essentially semiconductor fabrication technology... photolithography, using masks, and thin layer deposition, perhaps on top of a substrate.
posted by markkraft at 11:00 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, judging from this article, it seems like there's more to this than just semiconductor technology. Apparently, MIT has been running simulations on graphene to determine how to make tiny holes for filtering water. One proposed solution they suggested for making the tiny holes? Bombard graphene sheets with helium ions.
posted by markkraft at 11:11 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd want to see it function before buying what Lockheed is selling.

It's too bad U.S. taxpayers don't really have that option:

How The F-35 Turned Into Such A Disaster

The F-22: Final Delivery for a Flying Disaster

posted by Golden Eternity at 11:28 PM on March 15, 2013


"...there is also simply the fact that you're sucking vast quantities of seawater--full of microscopic marine life--into what is essentially a highly efficient killing machine. I'm not sure what can be done about that."

Those microorganisms would be filtered out long before you would get to the molecular-level filtration this article is speaking of - I don't know what happens to the microscopic life in current desalination plants, but this would be no different.

A good thing to consider in more narrow inlet areas, for example, but otherwise, considering the amount of nutrient rich water we put back into the ocean, whether from rivers, runoff or treated sewage waste, (note: un-cited scientific assumption ahead) it would take an enormous amount of plants processing a ridiculously high amount of water all over the globe to really unbalance the system.

In any case, if deployed on some large scale in the distant future, I could see a floating armada of these filters being useful to address the problem of algae blooms, which some predict will be larger(PDF) and more frequent.
posted by chambers at 12:11 AM on March 16, 2013


I could see a floating armada of these filters being useful to address the problem of algae blooms

Since you mention it, I sometimes daydream of a future where solar-powered robotic filter-feeders roam the oceans, straining out excess carbon stock and processing it into hydrocarbon fuel. Closed cycles are always the best cycles.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:24 AM on March 16, 2013


Some technology is so important, nobody should have a patent on it.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:16 AM on March 16, 2013 [3 favorites]


Notaro said Lockheed expects to have a prototype by the end of the year for a filter that could be used as a drop-in replacement for filters now used in reverse osmosis plants.

No moleste?
posted by dhartung at 1:56 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does anyone know how graphene breaks down vs plastics?
Well, you could burn it and just get CO2.

The trouble with military contractor's press releases is the lack of shame. Even the most shameless MIT release will talk about possible commercial results in 5-10 years. Military contractors can assuredly deliver next week, but at a price. And things may go wrong, but hey, you're paying top dollar for cutting edge. And now the timetable has slipped, and the budget gone up, what more could go wrong?
posted by bystander at 5:41 AM on March 16, 2013


DRIP FILTERS
NOT BOMBS
posted by breakfast! at 10:37 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those microorganisms would be filtered out long before you would get to the molecular-level filtration this article is speaking of - I don't know what happens to the microscopic life in current desalination plants, but this would be no different.

By what magical process do you imagine that these microorganisms that get "filtered out" would be restored--alive--to the ocean?

It really isn't hard to Google "desalination environmental concerns" you know. If you did (or if you even bothered to read the Scientific American piece that I linked to above you would see that the wholesale sterilization of large quantities of seawater that enters the plant teeming with life is one of the major environmental concerns about this process. This is not a theoretical issue, but an observed consequence of already existing technology, that will not be ameliorated by an improvement in the filters.
posted by yoink at 12:57 PM on March 16, 2013


yoink: How is this water intake process different and more damaging than a water treatment plant that takes its source water from a freshwater lake or river?
posted by monotreme at 2:04 PM on March 16, 2013


Since you mention it, I sometimes daydream of a future where solar-powered robotic filter-feeders roam the oceans, straining out excess carbon stock and processing it into hydrocarbon fuel. Closed cycles are always the best cycles.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:24 AM on 3/16

You mean robotic sperm whales? The irony!

The near-extinction of bio sperm whales through 19th century overharvesting is what made fossil oils economically viable.
posted by Dreidl at 2:05 PM on March 16, 2013


« Older Key to slowing/stalling/reversal of desertificatio...  |  'I've had it with lazy devs' -... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments