A low-carbon way to make fresh water
“My dream is to green-ify the desert.”
He works with molecules – but Dr Felipe Torres says these small bits of matter could be the answer to one of the world’s biggest problems: water scarcity.
“If we can make this technology work, it has the potential to change the world,” Dr Torres says.
Water is essential for life. Yet more than two billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress. The World Economic Forum has ranked the global water crisis as the fourth biggest global risk in terms of its impact on society. And climate change is set to make the problem worse.
Seawater desalination – extracting the salt to turn it into fresh water for drinking and agriculture – is one way the world can help address a shortage. But globally desalinated water accounts for less than 0.5% of human needs. Conventional reverse osmosis desalination technology – where salt is filtered through a membrane – is a very expensive and energy-intensive process.
“It takes a lot of electric power to desalinate seawater via reverse osmosis, and so it indirectly contributes to pollution as most of our electricity is currently produced by fossil fuels,” Dr Torres said. Now – working with scientists from ANU, Tohoku University and start up Nano Frontier Technology in Japan – Dr Torres and his team are working on new technology they hope will make desalination a cheaper, more sustainable way to create fresh water. In 2020 they were awarded an A$132,000 research grant from the Foundation for Australia-Japan Studies (FAJS), funded by Rio Tinto, and are working towards a patent.
Meet Dr Felipe Torres
The law of gravity is the same on Earth as in any other galaxy. That’s why I love physics, it’s universal.
I studied engineering because I wanted to contribute to society – to build things that solve challenges, like water shortage. That’s why I’m proud to be working with some of Australia’s and Japan’s leading scientists to create a new, more sustainable way to desalinate water.
I have always loved physics and maths. When I was 18, I was Colombia’s representative in the International Physics Olympiad in Indonesia – and it opened up possibilities to study abroad. Over the years I’ve done research in Australia, France and Japan.
I chose to study in Japan for my undergraduate degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering because I loved robots, and Japanese universities are really strong in the advanced technology space. I originally went for five years – but I ended up staying for 13! After studying my PhD I worked at Toshiba Corporation, motivated by Dr Tanaka Kōichi, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and lecturer at Tohoku University.
Having a strong connection between academic research and industry is really important – that’s how you can make real-life impacts.
I say to my students – find the joy in science, and then visualise how you could use it to solve problems in the world. Always think of the bigger picture.”
From cancer research to robotics
Supporting the Foundation for Australia-Japan Studies
This year marked our third year as the industry partner of the Foundation for Australia-Japan Studies, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages collaboration between academic institutions, government and industry in Australia and Japan. Since 2018, we have funded twelve research projects ranging from low-carbon desalination technology to robotics.
The new desalination technology is based on thermophoresis – using different temperatures to separate salt molecules from water molecules. Sound complicated? It is. In fact, thermophoresis is one of science’s great mysteries.
“Some molecules move towards heat while others move away from it. No one really knows why that happens. But it gives us an opportunity to use that temperature preference to separate salt from seawater,” Dr Torres said.
Thermophoresis is used in some industries, but this is a first for desalination. And by using heat created from solar power, the technology could prove to be a low-carbon solution – a huge benefit compared with reverse osmosis desalination.
While the technology looks promising, there is a lot more work to do before we may be drinking fresh water made by the team’s invention.
“The FAJS funding allows us to build a prototype, to see if it can work with large volumes of water in an energy-efficient way.
“I always tell my team to keep the big picture in mind – beyond desalination applications, we are also contributing new knowledge in relation to thermophoretic separation that can be used in other industries. In biotechnology, for example, it could be used to produce vaccines and medicines in a more efficient way.
“But ten years from now I hope to see people drinking water made by this technology,” Dr Torres said.
We hope so too.
Rio Tinto and Japan
Japan is one of our most important and longstanding customer markets, dating back about 100 years when we began shipping borates to Japan. In fact, we were able to develop our first iron ore mine in the Pilbara in the 1960s thanks to long-term offtake contracts signed by the Japanese steel mills, and today are the largest supplier of iron ore to Japan. We are also one of the largest exporters of metals and minerals such as aluminium, copper, borates, and titanium dioxide. And it doesn’t stop there: Japanese companies are important partners in many of our operations and projects, in our global supply chain as well as in innovation.