Nov 11, 2015 | By Alec

As a kid at the beach, you might have wondered at some point or another why we wouldn’t just drink all that free and cold sea water. While that used to result in a snort of derision from an older sibling, we might be doing exactly that in the near future. Right now, desalination machines are huge, inefficient and costly, but a team of researchers from GE Global Research and the U.S. Department of Energy are working on a handheld 3D printed device that could make this possible. What’s more, they’re using steam turbine principles to realize it.

This sounds a bit weird, until you get to the underlying mechanisms. The concept itself sprouted out of the minds of GE scientists Doug Hofer and Vitali Lissianski. GE’s research department is filled with fascinating small talk over water coolers and coffee machines, and chemical engineer Lissianski – who works with GE’s Power and Water, Oil and Gas, Aviation and Transportation applications – stumbled on an idea with his manager. Teaming up with steam turbine specialist Hofer, they came up with a perfect method for desalinating water: miniature steam turbines.

Hofer himself was part of a project on miniaturizing a GE steam turbine – a machine that usually fills an entire school gym. ‘In traditional steam turbines, steam condenses and turns to water,’ Hofer explains. ‘We thought maybe the same principle could be applied to water desalination.’ While usually used to generate electricity, Hofer explains that they can also run the flow system to freeze brine or salt water, instead of turning it into steam. By freezing the mixture, the salt naturally separates in solid form, leaving just the ice. The ice is then melted, leaving clean water.

A mini 3D printed turbine: not suitable for drinking just yet.

This could really be a useful tool, as clean drinking water is decreasing in supply, rather than increasing. 97.5 percent of the water supply is locked into salty oceans unsuitable for consumption, while 1.2 billion people (a fifth of the planet) is in dire need of water. Even California has been suffering from a water shortage recently.

"By putting desalination ‘on ice,’ we hope to change that dynamic,” said Vitali Lissianski, a chemical engineer and project leader at GE Global Research’s Energy Systems Lab. “Freezing seawater to treat it is nothing new, but the way we are doing it is very different. We’re tapping into our wealth of technical knowledge in turbomachinery to devise a cost-effective solution.”

“You might say we’re turbo charging our way to an affordable water desalination system,” Lissianski added.

Hofer explained that cooling the salty water, or brine droplets, by expanding cold gas in the turbine would greatly reduce the energy required for desalination. "The heat transfer between the cooling gas and brine would be much more efficient compared to conventional thermal desalination systems."

If this handheld 3D printed tool is successfully produced, it could reduce the cost of desalination by up to 20 percent – a huge decrease. In turn, that would encourage more investment in desalination machinery.

For the water desalination concept, using a full size steam turbine would not make sense. They are typically the size of several rail cars and take months to manufacture. To speed the development process, the miniaturized parts were 3D printed using technologies developed in GE Global Research's Additive Manufacturing Lab and GE Aviation's additive manufacturing facility in Cincinnati, Ohio. While no timeline has been set, Hofer’s previous project had quite a bit of success in miniaturizing a turbo expander modeled after the GE steam turbine, so the experience is there already. It would therefore not be too farfetched to think that we will be taking handheld drinking tools to the beach with us, instead of bottles of water, in the near future.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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