Today, around one-third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed areas: 1.8 billion people still drink unsafe water and have to cope with frequent severe floods and droughts. As we enter further into the Anthropocene epoch – where human influence has begun to have a profound impact on our planet’s environment and climate – we are presented with a grave risk to our future on this planet. But with great risk comes great opportunity.
If our planet is to have a stable and sustainable future as the global population increases, efficiencies in supply and demand – and new technologies – are crucial. Precision agriculture, reserve recovery and nanotechnology are three areas which hold a great deal of promise for helping us tackle the global water stress challenge.
Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of all global water consumption and the increasing demands of food production and irrigation are expected to push up current water consumption by a further 19 per cent by 2050. Approximately 40 per cent of the world’s food is currently cultivated in artificially irrigated areas but a continuation of this outdated process simply does not make sense. It is time for the agricultural world to adopt the innovative technologies that will help ease water stress.
New technologies can help to meet the global water stress challenge. Software and automation-driven techniques have the potential to help drive efficiency in agriculture. Technology gives us the ability to monitor, automate and manage water usage, limiting waste and identifying pressure points. For example, using sensors in the field and linking weather forecasting models will mean that fields are more precisely irrigated, thereby reducing agricultural water usage.
Reserve recovery from wastewater is already gaining rapid application, including water reuse, energy generation and nutrient production. Now the role of new technologies has not only begun reducing waste but is generating new sources of revenue from rare earth mineral extraction in water and wastewater plants. Techniques such as desalination and brine mining have revolutionised the way we think about extracting ultimate value from the world’s natural water resources. Making the most of what we have has never been so vital, as the demand for resources soars simultaneously with population growth.
The water industry can cater for wider industries like never before. For example, researchers at Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland last year completed work examining new methods of extracting lithium from natural brine sources – a process that will support the production of batteries on a large scale through what has historically been a waste product. The 99.9 per cent purity achieved in this instance is an example of how reuse is no compromise of quality, but instead a key driver of a sustainable future.
Brine contains about 60 elements in the form of metallic and non-metallic ions. Depending on the region, these constituent elements can be mined for numerous uses as fertilisers, plastics, solvents and even construction. Brine mining technology has been around for years, but its application in desalination has been limited due to insufficient volumes. As desalination becomes more cost-effective on the back of other technological advances, these volumes may increase, radically improving the underlying economics of brine disposal. Of course, as desalination gets more economic, it can have a dramatic impact on tackling global water stress.
Nanotechnology can improve water treatment and filtration at a fraction of today’s costs, potentially as soon as 2022, and recent breakthroughs have the potential to disrupt the water industry at all levels. As well as filtration, nanotechnology will also transform pipeline materials and enable smart systems.
Operating on scales 1/5000th of a red blood cell in diameter, nanotechnology is particularly well suited to water applications where the critical challenge involves the separation of pollutants, micro-organisms and other unwanted substances from molecules of pure H2O. For example, Liquidity, a California based start-up, has developed a low-cost, small scale nano-filter with the aim of bringing the same technology to the home market.
Major corporations, utilities, high-tech start-ups and universities are already active in some of the most potentially transformative segments within both the water-related nanotech and brine mining technology sectors, with investment and patent activity accelerating. Good progress has been made, but further investment in nanotech is essential if we are to see it revolutionise the way we handle water.
It is generally accepted that unless large-scale re-invention and co-ordinated system-wide action is taken both locally and regionally, we will face something like a 40 per cent shortfall in fresh water supplies before 2035. Systemic innovation is essential if we are to meet this challenge, and create a sustainable future for us all.