In an era marked by the scarcity of freshwater and the increase in greenhouse gases, scientists are tirelessly exploring cost-effective, eco-friendly methods to transform seawater into safe drinking water, without further depleting natural resources or boosting global greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, a group of researchers from the prestigious University for Membranes and Advanced Technology, under the guidance of an Assistant Professor in the Chemical Engineering division, have uncovered a new technique to separate salt from seawater that sidesteps the conventional thermal and membrane methods, which are both energy-intensive and costly, especially for small-scale desalination and the desalination of water with lower salt content. This new method, led by the Assistant Professor, employs electric and magnetic fields to attract salt ions from seawater towards a porous electrode, where they are collected and easily removed.

The team has documented their findings in a paper awaiting review by Electrochemical Acta and has also applied for a patent for this innovative system titled ‘System and Method for Removing Ions and Dissolved Charged Particles from Saline Water with Magnetic and Electric Fields.” Research on utilizing electric charges to separate salt ions from seawater – known as capacitive deionization, or CDI – is gaining momentum. In a recent publication in The Journal of Physical Chemistry, the Assistant Professor offers a detailed overview of the advancing desalination technology and suggests ways to enhance the design and components of CDI.

However, the Assistant Professor is convinced that the combination of electric charge separation with magnetic fields could be the key to a significant advancement in seawater desalination, as well as in various other separation processes, such as gas sweetening – the procedure of eliminating hydrogen sulfide from natural gas – and the removal of heavy metals from wastewater. “The idea came to me when I noticed some intriguing behavior of certain salt ions under the influence of the magnetic field. This observation led me to realize that the magnetic field's effect is not solely due to Lorentz forces as previously thought,” the Assistant Professor revealed. The use of less powerful and more affordable magnets in this process makes it much more sustainable and feasible for applications in remote areas where large-scale desalination is unnecessary. These weaker magnetic fields are effective because the Assistant Professor is leveraging an overlooked aspect of magnetism to improve the separation process

Assistant Professor found that the magnetic field does more than just exert the Lorentz force, which is the electromagnetic force that makes objects, like a wire carrying an electric current, physically move (this is how electric motors operate). It also reduces the strength of the connections between salt molecules in water. "The salt ions being separated from seawater are actually hydrated ions, which are salt molecules linked to a certain number of water molecules

The magnetic field makes the connections between these hydrated ions weaker, allowing the salt molecule to break free from the hydrogen atoms. This makes the salt molecule move more easily through the solution towards the electrodes," he said. The salt molecules that have lost their water molecules, or are just sodium chloride ions, are smaller than the salt molecules that are still attached to water. Their smaller size means they can move quicker towards the electrodes, and more of them can fit on the electrode, making the CDI process much more effective. The smaller salt ions are also the reason that weaker, less expensive magnets are effective. It's the specific arrangement of the magnetic and electric fields that causes the connections between the hydrogen and salt ions to weaken, not the magnetic field's strength. "The connections between molecules stretch, bend, and twist, creating continuous vibrations. If you hit these vibrations with a frequency that matches them, you can break or weaken these bonds," Assistant Professor explained. He realized that the perfect combination of a magnetic field and an electric field can produce frequencies that break apart the bonds between salt ions and hydrogen molecules.

After conducting several simulations to find the best setup for the magnetic and electric fields, the precisely calibrated prototype was able to enhance the separation of salt by 50% compared to a standard CDI system. However, the Assistant Professor's team believes there's still room for improvement. They are continuously working to refine the separation process by changing various components of the system, such as the frequencies, the arrangement of the electrodes, and the composition of the solution.

Assistant Professor and a team of experts from KU, including chemists, physicists, and microscopists, have planned new research to deeply understand how magnetic and electric fields affect the weakening of molecular bonds, and in turn, to expand its use in important areas like material synthesis. Assistant Professor's research has the potential to make a significant difference. He has shown a new method to manipulate ion size and movement using magnetism, which gives scientists more control over the separation process, potentially leading to more efficient, sustainable ways of desalination. In a country like the UAE, where desalination supplies over 80% of the country's drinking water, reducing the high energy and carbon footprint of desalination is essential for future growth and well-being.

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