Vote #Water

20 Jun 2014

Written by Professor Iain Stewart

The public vote to decide the challenge for the Longitude Prize 2014 is now open and I am championing the cause of water – a necessity for life which is heading for a global crisis of supply.

The prize sets out six challenges: water, food, paralysis, dementia, flight and antibiotics. And a prize fund of £10 million awaits whoever solves the challenge that you, the public, select as the most crucial.

Why water?

As someone who specialises in understanding the relationship between our geological and social history, I know that water is a vital cornerstone of everything we do; as a society, in our different cultures and as individuals, it permeates so much of our day-to-day activity.

Despite its omnipresence – with something like a billion trillion litres all told – only three per cent of that abundance is fresh water, usable for watering crops or drinking. So, how do we turn that other 97 per cent into something useful?

Desalination technology has progressed rapidly, but it’s still imperfect. The world’s largest plant converts 220 million litres of salt water a day, through a filter system based on countering osmosis with tightly packed membranes.

However, this method is costly and largely inefficient. It takes a huge amount of pressure to separate the water from the salt and other impurities, which requires energy and therefore money.

It’s imperative to all of our futures that we reduce the waste in this process and find an efficient, cost-effective alternative.

Progress must flow faster

Innovative approaches have been adopted in smaller scale models – systems based on hollow fibre membranes have been successfully tested, harnessing the natural process of osmosis to their advantage.

This refined method requires less energy but remains inefficient and untested on a large scale. Progress is being made, but it needs an immediate and radical helping hand – that’s where Longitude Prize 2014 comes in.

We desperately need a revolution in water treatment – to quench the thirst and grow the crops of a rapidly expanding population. If water were to win Longitude Prize 2014, there would be much-needed funding available at a critical phase in the development of these vital, globally applicable technologies.

It would also be a fitting tribute to John Harrison’s aquatic legacy – in 1714, he provided the means to conquer the high seas.