Clean water

A lack of access to clean water is one of the major problems facing many folks in the developing world. By some estimates, as many as 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water while 2.6 billion have little or no sanitation. As a result, millions of people die annually from the results of diseases transmitted through unsafe water.

Providing these people with an inexpensive, high-technology solution that could produce clean water would obviously be a real boon. And this week, I discovered that there’s one particular group of Chinese scientists that is aiming to do just that. Better yet, I also found out that there’s a way that all of us can help these scientists, without having to leave the comfort of our own living rooms.

That’s right. You don’t have to donate a penny to charity or fly off to join a bunch of well-meaning student types to help dig wells in far-flung corners of the world. All you need to do is to download a little piece of software on your computer and, hey presto, you too will be helping the researchers to create a new type of system to bring this necessary commodity to folks who can’t presently get enough of it.

More specifically, the researchers – who are based at Tsinghua University in Beijing in the People’s Republic of China – are working to understand the molecular-scale properties of carbon nanotubes. They believe that the nanotubes – which are stacked in arrays so that water must pass through their length – might one day be used to build systems to produce inexpensive, clean drinking water for those folks in developing countries.

Normally, the extremely small pore size of such nanotubes would require very large pressures and hence expensive equipment to filter useful amounts of water. However, in 2005, experiments at Kentucky University showed that such arrays of nanotubes would allow water to flow at much higher rates than expected.

Now, the Chinese scientists hope to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanism of water flow through the nanotubes by simulating the movement of individual water molecules through them using large-scale molecular dynamics calculations.

The only trouble is that these molecular dynamics calculations are pretty computationally intensive.  But that’s where you – or more specifically your computer – can help out. You see, to aid them in their modelling efforts, the cunning Chinese scientists have joined forces with the folks that run the World Community Grid, where volunteers can make a crucial difference by donating some of their spare computing power to help crunch the numbers.

The researchers hope that, eventually, the results of the global simulations on the grid will provide them with a better physical understanding of the optimum pore size of the carbon nanotubes as a function of water flow rate, which will then help them to fabricate efficient carbon nanotubes that can be used in a system to filter water.

If you’d like to donate a few hours of your computer’s time each day to help them with their Herculean computational challenge, I’m sure they’d be very pleased.

You can find out how to get involved at the link below:

Dave Wilson
Editor, Engineeringtalk

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