Could solve water shortages in the U.S. military

Researchers from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have began to develop a new process that could supply drinkable water to U.S. soldiers without putting military personnel at risk.  

Approximately 7 gallons of water is required for each U.S. soldier per day for drinking, bathing and preparing food. Providing this amount of water can be difficult and sometimes dangerous for military personnel when trying to supply it to those on combat. In addition, personnel trying to provide this much water can "limit the tactical use of field troops."

In the past, researchers tried to remedy this water shortage by converting diesel exhaust to water through thermodynamic condensation, but the U.S. military rejected the idea because it was heavy, bulky and required too much energy to operate heat exchangers. 

But now, Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are in the midst of developing a process called capillary condensation. The project is being led by Melanie DeBusk, research staff member of the Physical Chemistry of Materials group in the Materials Science and Technology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  

Using the fuel that the military burns in Humvees, generators and tanks could provide additional water for soldiers since fuel oxidizes and produces carbon dioxide and water after combustion. According to DeBusk, one gallon of diesel fuel should create one gallon of water, but not all of this water is usable. But with capillary condensation, DeBusk figures she can recover 65 to 85 percent of this water for military use. 

The system works by using a hollow steel tube with porous walls, where liquid water is drawn from the outside of the tube. This should allow more water to be condensed from the exhaust that travels through the tube. 

"With capillary condensation, we've got tiny capillaries in our porous, tubular inorganic membranes," said DeBusk. "Based on the rules of capillary condensation, you should be able to condense more water out at a given temperature compared to if you cooled air directly to that temperature and were relying on thermodynamic condensation."  

Also, by condensing in these tiny pores, contaminants in the water are being "displaced" continuously; meaning that contact between the condensed water and water-soluble gases is eliminated. In fact, DeBusk noted that there is a 100-fold reduction in contaminants in the water.  

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory plans to develop this system over the next couple of years, and estimate that the cost will be about $6 million. 

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