water, desalination of, process of removing soluble salts from water to render it suitable for drinking, irrigation, or industrial uses. The principal methods used for desalination include distillation (or evaporation), electrodialysis, freezing, ion exchange, and reverse osmosis.
In distillation saltwater is heated in one container to make the water evaporate, leaving the salt behind. The desalinated vapor is then condensed to form water in a separate container. Although long known, distillation has found limited application in water supply because of the fuel costs involved in converting saltwater to vapor. Representative of the early attempts in this direction were the solar distillation methods employed (c.49 B.C.) by the legions of Julius Caesar for using water from the Mediterranean. Modern technological advances led to the development of more efficient distillation units using solar energy; however, since these units have small capacities, their utility is restricted.
Distillation plants having high capacities and using combustible fuels employ various devices to conserve heat. In the most common system a vacuum is applied to reduce the boiling point of the water, or a spray or thin film of water is exposed to high heat, causing flash evaporation; the water is flashed repeatedly, yielding fresh distilled water. This multistage flash distillation method is used in more than 2,000 desalination plants, including one in Saudi Arabia that produces 250 million gallons of freshwater per day.
Another method of desalination is by electrodialysis. When salt dissolves in water, it splits up into charged particles called ions. Placed in a container with a negative electrode at one end and a positive electrode at the other, the ions are filtered by the membranes as they are attracted toward the electrodes; they become trapped between semipermeable membranes, leaving outside the membranes a supply of desalinated water that can be tapped. The first large installation using this process began operating in South Africa in 1958, but its electrical demands make it impractical except where such energy is abundant.
By far the most promising approach is the reverse osmosis process, in which pressure is applied to saltwater to force it through a special membrane. Only pure water passes, leaving concentrated seawater behind. Where multistage flash distillation costs about $4 per 1,000 gallons, reverse osmosis costs about half that amount. This process is used by a plant in the Tampa Bay area, Florida, that produces 25 million gallons of drinking water a day. Another type uses an empty hollow sphere of semipermeable material that is lowered into the sea. The water flowing into the sphere is fresh, since the salt is excluded by the membrane that covers the entire sphere and is its guard.
One final approach is under development in Hawaii, where different layers of seawater display a large temperature differential. Here an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion plant is being built which will use steam produced by the flash method to produce energy, then condense the steam into freshwater. Three such plants could produce a hundred megawatts of power, as well as supply 30% of Hawaii's water needs.
For emergency use, i.e., in lifeboats, various systems are available in addition to solar or fuel-heated distillation devices. One device made of flexible plastic is worn around the waist of the user to employ body heat for evaporation.