They say the next world war would be fought over water. With India being left with only 4% of freshwater sources while the country continues to tap the already depleting groundwater resources — in fact, as much as 25% of the groundwater extracted in the world is from India.
Alert to this worrying crisis, at least two units of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar and Chennai are already working out ways to tackle a veritable water emergency in the making.
If IIT-Gandhinagar (IITGN) researchers have developed a cost-effective and environment-friendly water desalination technique to make seawater drinkable, its counterpart, IIT-Madras, is establishing a new inter-disciplinary Water Management and Policy Centre called ‘AquaMAP’ to solve water problems in India.
The technology institutes are aware of the huge crisis staring at the country’s face. In fact, Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Shekhawat has stated that out of the 178.7 million rural households in the country, only 32.7 million or 18% get drinking water from tap connections.
And a World Health Organisation (WHO) report states that nearly one-fifth of the world population lives in areas that are devoid of clean drinking water.
It has been reported that the Reverse Osmosis (RO) technique for desalination is expensive, wastes more water, and is highly energy-intensive, which typically requires hydrostatic pressures of 60-80 bar.
With rising demand for potable water and continuously shrinking freshwater resources, more and more countries will have to turn to desalination of seawater to meet the needs.
IIT Gandhinagar’s cost-effective water desalination technique
Hitting the nail bang in the head, researchers at the IIT-Gandhinagar have developed a cost-effective water desalination technique.
Led by Prof Gopinadhan Kalon, assistant professor of physics and materials engineering, the IITGN, team has created a controllable water transport channel in graphite crystal with the help of an electric field and potassium chloride (KCl) ions, which allowed only freshwater to move through the crystal and blocked all the salt ions.
The research team includes IITGN PhD scholars Lalita Saini, Aparna Rathi, Suvigya Kaushik, and a Postdoctoral fellow Siva Sankar Nemala. The research is inspired by the trees’ natural intake of water that uses the capillary effect.
Prof Kalon said, “Our method is not only limited to graphite but also a large number of layered materials, like clays, that could be explored for high-performance separation applications. With abundant seawater and appropriate plant design optimisation, our method holds a bright future in realising the dream of drinking water for everyone on the planet.”
“Natural graphite is not absorptive to water or any ions including Protons. However, by its nature, the graphite crystal also does not allow any water molecules to pass through it because there is not enough space for the movement of these molecules. This issue was solved by using an electric field and inserting potassium chloride (KCl) ions in it, which create some space inside the graphite crystal and provide a stable structure for easy passage of water molecules, at the same time hindering the movement of any salt ions, giving drinkable water,” explained first author, Lalita Saini.
IIT–Madras’ Water Policy Centre:
IIT-Madras will provide smart solutions for challenging water problems by designing scalable models by leveraging innovative technologies. These models would be implemented at chosen locations across the country, as a proof of concept.
AquaMAP Centre is being established with generous support from IIT Madras Alumni who are providing a seed grant commitment of Rs 3 Crore for two years and helped in crafting the five-year plan.
Prof Ligy Philip, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras, and Dean (Planning), IIT Madras, is the Principal Investigator of AquaMAP. She will be supported by another 20 faculty members working on water-related issues and drawn from diverse departments such as Civil Engineering, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Management and Humanities and Social Sciences.
Elaborating on AquaMAP’s brief, Prof Ligy Philip, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras, and Dean (Planning), said, “We wish to do our best to solve the pressing water challenges in our country.”
Krishnan Narayanan, President, IIT Madras Alumni Association (IITMAA) and President, Itihaasa Research and Digital, said, “I am glad that I could leverage my water-startup experience in India in shaping the vision of AquaMAP. I am also delighted as an alumnus to give back my time to the institute. Since we have made alumni-engagement central to this initiative, other alumni with expertise in the water domain can now apply to become a Fellow, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Project Grand Masters, or volunteers at AquaMAP.”