Can ocean water be made drinkable? The short and simple answer to this question is yes. We can make ocean water drinkable through a few different processes.
The desalination process will always involve separating salt from the rest of the water.
Collectively, these processes are called desalination.
In traditional desalination techniques, the water is boiled away and caught as condensation. As the water evaporates, the sale is left behind.
The second desalination technique involves using a filter with small holes. Then, the water is blasted through the filter sheet at high pressure, and the salt crystals cannot pass through the filter.
After the desalinated water passes, the salt is left behind on the filter. This process is called reverse osmosis and is nowadays much more widespread than the traditional boiling technique.
How Is Ocean Water Made Drinkable?
First, the water must go through one of the desalination processes above. Once the salt is removed, the water goes through purification.
Sometimes the issue remains that water pulled from the ocean retains a taste, sometimes described as fishy.
Salt removal and purification do not always make the taste go away. If the ocean water has a terrible taste, it’s not drinkable, but it still has its uses.
Even if the taste is undesirable, the water can be used for showering, gardening, washing dishes, and anything else that requires freshwater.
Is Desalination Necessary?
Freshwater is found in nature sparingly. Three percent of the world’s water supply is fresh water.
However, most of that is frozen in glaciers, inaccessible to humans.
Only about half of one percent of the Earth’s freshwater is available for us to use.
Many areas are experiencing potable water shortages, such as California, Arizona, Nevada, Indonesia, South Africa, Libya, and Jordan, among other places.
The reasons for lack of access to drinkable water differ depending on the area—some places are simply deserts without accessible aquifers, and some are war-torn.
Therefore, the natural conclusion would be to draw drinkable water from the ocean, especially in coastal areas.
Since ninety-seven percent of Earth’s water is in our oceans, it’s logical that we would come up with a way to transform salt water into safe drinking water.
As of 2018, the world’s desalination plants create 25 billion gallons of desalinated water each day.
Desalination is a massive global industry, and it provides potable water for hundreds of millions of individuals who otherwise would not have access to this life-giving resource.
There is a problem with desalinating seawater—it is heavy on energy usage.
However, engineers and industrialists are working on projects that are more energy-efficient and use renewable sources of energy, including solar power.
As mentioned above, it is entirely possible to make ocean water drinkable. However, the question remains if it should be done.
Drawbacks to Desalination
One of the current issues with desalination is that it is available to rich countries and regions with massive income, such as the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
The technology currently used for desalination is not widely available in all regions with water shortages.
This means that myriads of those who need fresh drinking water perish because they still do not have access.
Environmentalists fear that widespread desalination is unsustainable.
Although oceans may seem like a vastly untapped source of potentially potable water, many studies show that irresponsible desalination could negatively impact delicate marine ecosystems.
With pollution, overfishing, and climate change already heavily impacting ocean life, the prospect of further damage through the use of desalination looms large.
Another drawback to the desalination of ocean water is that the technology used for the processes consumes astonishing amounts of energy.
If that energy comes from fossil fuels, then the process of desalinating ocean water creates more problems than it will solve.
It will continue to contribute to greenhouse gasses causing global warming, which will, in turn, create further water shortages, ultimately resulting in the need for more desalination.
Salt is not the only thing left behind after the desalination process. Ocean water has dozens of other substances and minerals included in it, and those have to be removed before humans can consume desalinated water.
One of the substances in ocean water is boron, which is unsafe for human consumption.
Other chemicals can be present in ocean water as well due to humanity’s effects on the environment.
These chemicals find their way into the oceans and through desalination, they can come back to humans.
Desalination itself can also cause pollution. The byproducts left behind (unusable minerals, contaminants, and brine) can further pollute land and sea alike, creating new problems and devastation.
Brine alone is known as a “blanket of death” because the highly concentrated salty fluid settles at the bottom of the ocean. The high saline concentration then kills everything it contacts.
Benefits of Desalination
Due to global warming and climate change, we can no longer depend on water sources that we previously did.
For example, lakes and rivers are drying up, groundwater stores are disappearing from overuse without having time to get naturally replenished, and glacial freshwater is melting into the oceans.
For decades, we have naturally looked to our planet’s largest water sources to solve these crises. So much water, but nothing to drink—until desalination became an industry.
Although we mentioned previously that one drawback of desalination is that the technology is not available in every place that needs it, that is changing.
Though it isn’t a process that’s happening at the speed of light, desalination technology is becoming simpler and more energy-efficient.
The smaller and more affordable the machines become, the more regions and countries can afford to employ them.
This means that not only can those who previously had no access to desalinated water now get fresh water; but it also means that the technology will be less environmentally damaging.
Although the salt from some desalinated ocean water can be used, most of the salt is filled with impurities. It’s simply tossed back into the water.
However, there is hope for this current downside.
Scientists and tech developers are working to create methods to make the salt usable. They’re also looking into how to use the minerals and other substances left behind after desalination.
Instead of becoming waste, these minerals can be collected and distributed so that there is no useless or dangerous byproduct from desalination.
Ocean salt leftover from desalination is often used as mineral-rich table salt. Unfortunately, it’s not available from every batch of ocean water that undergoes desalination.
There are often impurities found in the leftover salt that make it inedible. Researchers are working on ways to purify more of this sea salt, so there’s less brine released into the ocean.
More and more projects aim to harness the power of the sun to heat the boilers used for desalination.
Two years ago, researchers at MIT developed a fully solar-powered desalination device. If this technology can be enlarged and implemented on an industrial level, desalination can be an industry that only uses clean energy.
If solar energy becomes the primary (and eventually only) method of powering desalination plants, places with the most severe droughts and water shortages are in luck.
These locations include countries located around the Equator. These places experience hundreds of days of sunshine each year—the perfect place for solar energy to be implemented.
At Purdue University, engineers have recently developed a smaller version of traditional reverse osmosis, increasing the water pressure going through the filter and then decreasing the volume.
This is done over a longer period than the rapid, energy-guzzling traditional large batch methods.
This could potentially lead to saving enormous amounts of energy swallowed by desalination by reverse osmosis as well as decreasing the greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere by the process.
Another way to mitigate water shortages using desalination plants is to recycle and reuse the water that the plant produces.
To Desalinate or Not to Desalinate
If desalination is the only way to provide water, then it is necessary.
However, until more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient desalination methods are harnessed and implemented, the long-term ecological repercussions of current methods are not sustainable.
Desalination is a hugely exciting engineering field, and legions are working to improve the process so that the planet can keep up with the demands of its residents.
Freshwater is a finite and shrinking resource. Ocean water seems inexhaustible, but even its vastness has limitations.
Other articles you may also like: