Scientists may have created a solution that will allow people in developed and developing countries to make drinkable water out of otherwise unpotable seawater through a process called solar desalination.

Solar Desalination Shows Promising Results for the Developing World
Solar Desalination Shows Promising Results for the Developing World

Emily Folk | Conservation Folks

Water covers the majority of our planet, but only 3% of it is fresh and drinkable. Two-thirds of that is locked up in the planet's polar ice caps, frozen and inaccessible, leaving us very little drinkable water as a species. As the population grows on our little blue marble, it becomes harder for people to access clean drinking water. As many as 1.2 billion people don't have access to clean drinking water, and 2.8 billion experience water scarcity at least once during each calendar year.

Scientists may have created a solution that will allow people in developed and developing countries to make drinkable water out of otherwise unpotable seawater through a process called solar desalination. What is this technique, and how could it prevent water scarcity as the planet's population continues to grow?


What Is Solar Desalination?

Water covers 75% of our planet, and 97% of that water is in our oceans — filled with salt and undrinkable, only suitable as a home for sea life. If we could figure out a way to remove that salt and any other impurities, it might provide us with a nearly endless water supply. That's where solar desalination comes in.

Desalination, in general, is the process of removing saline — salt — from seawater. There are desalination plants across the globe, but renewable energy powers fewer than 1% of them. That makes them inaccessible in the developing world, where power isn't always guaranteed.

Like its name suggests, solar desalination uses the power of the sun to make the undrinkable drinkable. Solar energy heats the water to a boil, in a facility that can capture the resulting steam and condense it back into fresh drinking water. The process leaves salt and any other debris behind, where they can get used or discarded as needed.

WaterFX, a California-based company, has debuted its Aqua4 Concentrated Solar Still, which can produce 65,000 gallons of freshwater a day just by using solar energy. While California is often drought-stricken and can benefit from solar desalination, the most significant impact of this technology will be in the developing world.


Potable Water in the Developing World

Remember those billion people we mentioned earlier that don't have access to fresh drinking water? Most of them live in developing countries in Africa and Asia. As the climate continues to change, temperatures keep climbing and the population keeps growing, the problem will become worse. Setting up solar desalination plants in these at-risk areas could help nip the problem in the bud before it starts taking more lives.

One solar-powered plant in Kenya is proving the efficacy of this idea. GivePower, the nonprofit branch of Elon Musk's SolarCity company, opened a solar desalination plant in the town of Kiunga in July 2018. Today, it's capable of producing 19,800 gallons of drinking water every day. That's enough to support 25,000 people.

It cost GivePower $500,000 to build the plant, but the ultimate goal is to earn $100,000 a year from the plant and use that money to fund other facilities, eventually reducing the total cost of each to $100,000 or less.


The Future of Drinkable Water

As the planet's population continues to grow, water will become scarcer than ever. It's up to us to apply the brakes now, before water scarcity makes it impossible for people to survive in developing countries. Desalination can change the world, but only if it's accessible. Pairing it with solar panels makes it easier for everyone to access this technology, regardless of the state of their local power grid. Renewable energy and desalination could make water scarcity a thing of the past if we're willing to take the first steps to get that technology where it's needed most.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
Emily Folk - Contributing Author

Emily Folk - Contributing Author

Emily is an environmental writer, covering topics in renewable energy and sustainability. She is also the editor of Conservation Folks.

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