Carbon-based filter which turns seawater into drinking water could help millions

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A group of scientists in the U.K. created a membrane 'sieve' capable of removing salt from seawater to make it drinkable by using graphene, a wafer-thin sheet of carbon atoms.

Reporting their findings in the Nature Nanotechnology journal, researchers from the University of Manchester have claimed that the process of desalination – filtering salt-water to produce fresh water – could lead to cheaper filtration systems in the developing world.

They explained that by controlling the size of the pores in the membranes the team was able to filter out common salts passing through the material.

"Realization of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology," Rahul Nair, professor of material physics at the University of Manchester, said in a statement.

Previously researchers were unable to remove common salts using the graphene filtering technique, instead removing small nanoparticles and organic molecules.

"This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime. We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sleeve sizes," Nair added.

Graphene was originally isolated in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both professors at the University of Manchester, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work.

By 2025 the UN expects that 14% of the world's population will be faced with water scarcity as a result of the damaging effects of climate change on water supplies.

It is hoped that the new process will enable new technologies to become accessible to countries which do not have the financial means to fund large plants without compromising the quality of fresh water produced.