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Making Saltwater Drinkable: Desalination Already Happening in Nature


image17-537x357 The water crisis in our world today revolves not around water scarcity, but water quality. One of every six people doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. This is ironic considering about 70% of our planet is covered in water. Of course, that water is salt water.

The process of desalination has been a very tempting method to obtain fresh water however, such an undertake is very costly and can have negative effects on the environment. There are organisms in nature that have an innate ability to desalinate. Harnessing that could change what we think about drinking water.

Humans already make fresh water from salty. We even do it in water-scarce areas. The process of desalination usually involves boiling down the salt water leaving the salt behind, or actively pushing salt water through a semipermeable membrane, leaving salt left behind on one side. The results are very energy-intensive and bad for the environment, for both plants and animals.

However, marine mammals obtain fresh water without any of the aforementioned side effects. Marine mammals keep their blood only a third as salty as saltwater. The reason being they have different ways of disposing of it. All of them use salt glands with a sodium-potassium ion pump and a counter-current exchange mechanism that moves salt out of their blood. The mangrove tree is also a great desalinater. Evaporation sucks the moisture out of the leaves and through to the top of the tree, leaving salt behind.

There is plenty of water at our fingertips; the trick is to harness it to clean drinking water. Since our own efforts are encountering many problems, we should definitely consult what is already going on in nature.

Credit: Tamsin Woolley-Barker

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