Filtration will remain important as long as people need access to potable water — meaning forever. However, clean drinking sources shrink as the population grows and new contaminants appear. Breakthrough advances in conventional technology are the only way forward.
Why New Filtration Technology Is Necessary
Although clean, potable water is the most fundamental human need, many people cannot get it. Roughly one-fourth of the global population lacks reliable access. This situation has dire implications since drinking from a contaminated source can be deadly.
Unfortunately, waterborne diseases can impact even those with safely managed services. For instance, water with a pH of 6.5 or under becomes acidic and can damage pipes, resulting in heavy metal contamination. A practical, reliable filter is one of the few ways people can ensure their drink is safe for consumption.
Even though traditional systems work for many people, they cannot meet everyone’s needs. Challenges like pipe corrosion, unique contaminants and a lack of supporting infrastructure create the need for innovative technologies.
1. Air Bubble Membrane
Chemicals, airborne bacteria and toxins can contaminate water sources, making them unsafe to consume. However, some people have no choice but to drink from them. Fortunately, University of Colorado Boulder researchers developed a state-of-the-art bubble membrane to make filtration more accessible.
Conventional membranes disinfect by pushing contaminants through a sieve, while this new invention distills by using layers of small bubbles. Its creators say it is much more efficient than modern reverse osmosis systems. It is so effective that people can even use it to filter wastewater if they need to.
Unlike other filtration membranes, this bubble version does not degrade when chemicals are present in water. Further, it is reusable and easily scalable, meaning it can handle whatever amount of water people need. It is one of the most exciting developments in recent years.
2. Graphene Membrane
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization scientists teamed up for the GRAPHIL project to develop an innovative water filter. Instead of using a traditional polymer material, they used graphene. The cutting-edge filtration membrane can remove over 99% of contaminants in drinking water.
Microscopic channels blocking even the tiniest impurities cover the membrane’s large surface area. Unlike other traditional water filters, it does not rely on chlorine or expensive technology to work — it is a simple one-step solution.
3. Sunlight-Activated Nanoflake Powder
Although ultraviolet water filtration was a fantastic advancement, engineers at Stanford University felt they could do better. Frankly, they were right. They used a tiny amount of nontoxic metallic powder to quickly capture contaminants. Their new nanoflakes harness ordinary sunlight to eliminate thousands of bacteria every second.
The filtration process is straightforward. To begin, someone stirs a small amount of powder into a water source. The previously absorbed sunlight causes a chain reaction involving electrons, hydrogen peroxide and hydroxyl radicals — antiseptic and destructive substances.
Their futuristic invention disinfects water sources within a minute and is reusable, meaning it can quickly scale to meet any homeowner’s needs. As a bonus, the process produces no toxic waste byproduct. People who need to remove the powder can use a magnet to extract it.
4. Electrospun Nanofiber Membrane
Since water filtration nanotechnology has existed for a few years, researchers have been able to substantially advance traditional methods and materials. One of the results was a nanofiber membrane produced by a novel electrospinning technique. The process is time-consuming but results in a device far more effective than the standard version.
The diameter of nanofibers in an electrospun membrane is less than half the size of conventional water purification technologies. Because of this feature, they can filter smaller particles much more effectively. Even the tiniest impurity will have trouble getting through this microscopic mesh.
5. Silica-Based Membrane
In a development no one saw coming, engineers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) found a way to remove the “forever” from “forever chemicals.” Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are hazardous and remain in water sources permanently. However, this new silica-based filtration technology safely captures, removes and destroys them.
This novel invention can eliminate 99% of PFAS without creating any toxic waste in the process. The engineering professor heading the project even said it is one thousand times better than the average Brita filter. If every home had a filtration system like this, the number of forever chemical-caused adverse effects like developmental delays and cancer would shrink.
6. Foam-Encased Electrode Branches
A lone researcher at the University of Texas at Austin developed an innovative electricity filtration method. Bacteria cells naturally move toward electrodes, so she created special graphite foam-encased branches to capture them alive.
Her small filtration system has many substantial benefits. For one, it is effective — it removes 99.99% of E. coli bacteria in only 20 minutes. Also, it can work for hours without experiencing a drop in efficiency. Best of all, it costs less than $2 to make.
Although the prototype device is mug-shaped for convenience — and to demonstrate its effectiveness — this technology could easily become a standard filtration system. People with reliable access to electricity could disinfect their drinking water in minutes.
7. Xylem Membrane
Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered a new filtration method when they analyzed nature. Trees have been absorbing water for billions of years, so it makes sense they would be the go-to choice for innovation.
Some nonflowering species have straw-shaped channels — xylem — to draw in and disperse water. Although this feature must seem insignificant to the average person, it was a gold mine of inspiration for the engineers. They used their previous work with rudimentary tree-based filters to replicate the structure.
As a result, they developed a new filtration membrane that can remove dangerous contaminants, bacteria and pathogens. Since its main component is wood, it is highly accessible and affordable. People who are knowledgeable enough could recreate it themselves.
The Future of Home Water Filtration
For most people, an ice-cold glass of water sounds refreshing until they think of how many impurities and contaminants might be in it. Fortunately, emerging filtration technology will make such thoughts a thing of the past. While many of the most groundbreaking inventions are not available to the average person yet, they will one day be in homes worldwide.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine, an online publication that explores innovations in science and technology.