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The removal of dissolved minerals (including salts) from seawater or brackish water. This may occur naturally as part of the hydrologic cycle, or as an engineered process. Engineered water desalination processes, which produce potable water from seawater or brackish water, have become important because many regions throughout the world suffer from water shortages caused by the uneven distribution of the natural water supply and by human use. See Water supply engineering
Seawater, brackish water, and fresh water have different levels of salinity, which is often expressed by the total dissolved solids (TDS) concentration. Seawater has a TDS concentration of about 35,000 mg/L, and brackish water has a TDS concentration of 1000–10,000 mg/L. Water is considered fresh when its TDS concentration is below 500 mg/L, which is the secondary (voluntary) drinking water standard for the United States. Salinity is also expressed by the water's chloride concentration, which is about half of its TDS concentration.
Water desalination processes separate feed water into two streams: a fresh-water stream with a TDS concentration much less than that of the feed water, and a brine stream with a TDS concentration higher than that of the feed water.
Distillation is a process that turns seawater into vapor by boiling, and then condenses the vapor to produce fresh water. Boiling water is an energy-intensive operation, requiring about 4.2 kilojoules of energy (or latent heat) to raise the temperature of 1 kg of water by 1°C. After water reaches its boiling point, another 2257 kJ of energy (or the heat of vaporization) is required to convert it to vapor. The boiling point depends on ambient atmospheric pressure—at lower pressure, the boiling point of water is lower. Therefore, keeping water boiling can be accomplished either by providing a constant energy supply or by reducing the ambient atmospheric pressure.
Reverse osmosis, the process that causes water in a salt solution to move through a semipermeable membrane to the fresh-water side, is accomplished by applying pressure in excess of the natural osmotic pressure to the salt solution. The operational pressure of reverse osmosis for seawater desalination is much higher than that for brackish water, as the osmotic pressure of seawater at a TDS concentration of 35,000 mg/L is about 2700 kJ while the osmotic pressure of brackish water at a TDS concentration of 3000 mg/L is only about 230 kJ.
Salts dissociate into positively and negatively charged ions in water. The electrodialysis process uses semipermeable and ion-specific membranes, which allow the passage of either positively or negatively charged ions while blocking the passage of the oppositely charged ions. An electrodialysis membrane unit consists of a number of cell pairs bound together with electrodes on the outside. These cells contain an anion exchange membrane and cation exchange membrane. Feed water passes simultaneously in parallel paths through all of the cells, separating the product (water) and ion concentrate.