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And it’s much cheaper than it was two decades ago. The first desalination method—and still the most common, especially in oil-rich countries along the Persian Gulf—was brute-force distillation: Heat seawater until it turns to steam, leaving its salt behind, then condense it. The current state of the art, used, for example, at plants that opened recently in Tampa Bay, Florida, and Perth, Australia, is reverse osmosis, in which water is forced through a membrane that catches the salt. Pumping seawater to pressures of more than a thousand pounds per square inch takes less energy than boiling it—but it is still expensive.

Researchers are now working on at least three new technologies that could cut the energy required even further. The closest to commercialization, called forward osmosis, draws water through the porous membrane into a solution that contains even more salt than seawater, but a kind of salt that is easily evaporated. The other two approaches redesign the membrane itself— one by using carbon nanotubes as the pores, the other by using the same proteins that usher water molecules through the membranes of living cells.

None of the three will be a solution for all the world’s water woes. Desalination inevitably leaves behind a concentrated brine, which can harm the environment and even the water supply itself. Brine discharges are especially tricky to dispose of at inland desalination plants, and they’re also raising the salinity in parts of the shallow Persian Gulf. The saltier the water gets, the more expensive it becomes to desalinate.

What’s more, none of the new technologies seem simple and cheap enough to offer much hope to the world’s poor, says geologist Farouk El-Baz of Boston University. He recently attended a desalination-industry conference looking for ways to bring fresh water to the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur. “I asked the engineers, ‘What if you are in a tiny village of 3,000, and the water is a hundred feet underground and laden with salt, and there is no electricity?’ ” El-Baz says. “Their mouths just dropped.” —Karen E. Lange

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