PHOTO CREDIT: TURKANA BASIN INSTITUTE
A recently constructed laboratory at the Turkana Basin Institute’s Turkwel research facility. Professor Benjamin S. Hsiao from Stony Brook University’s Department of Chemistry is researching possible solutions to provide drinking water at the TBI facility in northern Kenya. PHOTO CREDIT: TURKANA BASIN INSTITUTE

Every few weeks, Kenneth Wengler, a graduate student studying biomedical engineering, will take a look at Stony Brook-related science and research news.

 

For years, scientists and politicians around the globe have concerned themselves with the humanitarian task of providing clean drinking water to all humans regardless of their social status or where they live. A scientist right here at Stony Brook University has taken this task head on and believes he can solve this global problem.

Benjamin S. Hsiao, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Stony Brook University, and his research team have recently developed two techniques for purifying drinking water that are both sustainable and affordable.

Hsiao believes that all humans deserve to have clean drinking water.

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“Water is the basic human right, and energy is to have a better standard of living,” Hsiao said. “Without water you’ll die. Without energy, it’s not so convenient. Without information technology, it’s not so convenient either.”

In Hsiao’s research, he always keeps in mind the large portion of society in the developing world that struggles with obtaining clean drinking water and has tailored his research to those who live off the grid. It is estimated that 1.3 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity while 1 billion do not have access to clean drinking water.

“In order to provide affordable sustainable water solutions to people who live off the grid, very, very poor, the bottom of the pyramid in society, you have to come up with sustainable solutions,” Hsiao said. “Energy or electricity are a premium. Not everybody can afford it, especially if you live off the grid and the chance for them to get this grid service is very, very low. This problem is very notable in Africa, in South America, and in parts of Asia.”

To overcome the challenge of providing clean drinking water to people who live off the grid, Hsiao has worked to harness the power of free energy and combined it with materials that can filter water quickly and without much energy.

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“I’m interested in how exactly the relationship between structure and permeability,” Hsiao said. “So my objective is to find the best structure with the highest permeability. With high permeability, you can purify water at a much faster rate. If you can make things move much faster, then that means you can use much less pressure or much less force; it’s easier to push through. And if pressure is related to electricity, which not everybody can afford, that means if I have a highly permeable membrane, I can harvest some low pressure techniques.”

To accomplish this goal, Hsiao and his team have turned to two forces that he believes will be around for a long time to come.

“There are two forces that are absolutely free to us: one is gravity, one is temperature difference by solar or waste heat,” Hsiao said. “So I’m trying to harvest two of such energy resources to try to demonstrate that we can provide affordable and sustainable methods to purify drinking water.”

Hsiao has already made great strides in taking the challenge of improving access to clean drinking water, and he continues to further his research to make it even cheaper and more accessible.

“I’d like to use the most advanced materials to build the most robust means, with very little moving parts, very easy to maintain, to harvest drinking water,” Hsiao said.

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