About this Article
Written by: Cindy Goh
Written on: September 1st, 2004
Tags: environmental engineering, energy & sustainability
Thumbnail by: Suárez/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Cindy Goh was a junior at the University of Southern California who pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Electrical Engineering in fall of 2004. Originally from Malaysia, she has an affinity for spicy food.
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Volume VI Issue II > Engineering Water: Finding Solutions to a Drying Well
The global fresh water supply has become a major concern as most third world nations, and even some developed countries, face the disconcerting reality that drinkable water is running out. To solve this newly realized crisis, engineers are offering the world new, innovative techniques for water purification. Nanotechnology, technological development on the nanometer scale, is a constantly developing scientific field that promises revolutionary water filtration methods and products. Engineers have recently introduced water filters that use carbon nanotubes to clean water, providing a cost effective filtration method that is more successful and portable than traditional filtration techniques.

World: "Help! We need water!"

Although 70% of Earth is covered with water, only about 1% of it is potable. Considering the current global population of more than six billion, this small portion of fresh water is not sufficient to sustain Earth's inhabitants. This problem is compounded because water is not evenly distributed across the globe. Canada, for instance, has only 0.005% of the world's population but 22% of Earth's fresh water [1]. In light of this, we are now facing a water crisis. This may not seem alarming since there has always been a shortage of clean water, but here are some disturbing facts obtained from the 1999 World Water Day:
Figure 1: There are currently more than 1000 million people in the world that lacks access to an easily accessible and safe water source.
  • A child dies from a water-related disease every 8 seconds.
  • Fifty percent of people in developing countries suffer from one or more water-related diseases.
  • Eighty percent of diseases in developing countries are caused by contaminated water.
  • Fifty percent of people on Earth are deprived of proper sanitation due to lack of water [2].
The problems have only magnified since 1999, and looking at current trends, it is clear that the water shortage is going to worsen drastically (see Fig. 1). According to BBC News, "one person in five has no access to safe drinking water." In Mexico City, the excessive amounts of water being pumped from its foundations to be used for drinking is slowly causing the city itself to sink. Even more alarming is that a United Nations report predicts that water will be the single biggest cause of conflict and war in the African and Middle Eastern regions in the future [3].
As the water crisis threatens to grow into a global power struggle, there are various groups attempting to develop water conservation and optimization methods to prevent future tragedies. So while some politicians continue squabbling over rivers and lakes, engineers are coming up with better, more advanced technologies to provide cleaner water for all.

Engineers: "We are here to help"

Before the development of the new purification techniques, most decontamination technology revolved around "older" methods like filtration, ultraviolet disinfection, desalinization, electrodialysis, and chemical treatment. The most common of these is filtration, whereby an object, usually a screen or membrane, is used to remove particulate solids from the desired liquid. Types of filtration methods include slow sand filtration, carbon filtration, and micro-ultra filtration.