Innovating Desalination Technology at SCD

Images and story by Zeno Jo, SCD Content Creator

With the help of instruments in the Shop at Siebel Center for Design, a study led by UIUC mechanical engineering professor Kyle Smith successfully achieved more effective saltwater desalination using a battery-based process.

Smith and his lab were able to engrave microscopic channels that are thinner than a strand of hair using the Trotec Speedy 400 Flexx, the model of laser cutter available for use at SCD. Water could flow through these channels, and when electricity is driven through the device – called a cell – it would increase the extent of saltwater desalination five times over non-channeled counterparts.

Smith says he visited SCD for the first time a year and a half ago because of an event that his wife, who works in the medical school, was attending. When he saw the equipment and realized their capabilities he said, “Woah! We can use these for free! And these instruments are really good.”

Before making use of the lasers at SCD, Smith said that his lab had used 3 different lasers to engrave channels, but the ones at SCD “proved to be the most repeatable, reliable, and accessible - and have good resolution.”

“Over the past few months, I've spent many hours using the Trotec lasers at SCD.” Says Irwin Loud IV, a researcher involved in the study. “Whenever I needed help understanding the laser's functionality or software SCD Shop manager Neil, and Integrated Design Specialist Michael were always ready and willing to help. I am so glad we stumbled upon this resource. Not only is it relatively user-friendly, but it is also a very high power and high precision tool.”

Smith says that the implications of this paper are also beyond desalination. The strategy for making patterns in electrodes could be applied to a number of different electrochemical devices, such as batteries for energy storage on the electric grid or hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles.

At the moment, they have tested the desalination process at a small scale in the Smith Laboratory, and the intent of this group is to increase fresh-water production rate moving forward. The study was published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, and can be found here.