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This Tiny Innovation Is a Giant Leap Forward for Water Services

Alex Planes
March 25, 2013

Water, water, everywhere... and how much might we drink?

It's been centuries since Coleridge's Ancient Mariner lamented the undrinkable salty seas around him. Today, it's easier -- but not necessarily easy -- to get fresh water from the vast water reserves of the world's oceans. Over 15,000 desalinization plants now operate throughout the world, but they produce less than 1% of the water the world consumes every day. Population growth and water scarcity often go hand in hand, so anything that could enhance the usefulness of desalinization efforts would be well-received everywhere.

A recent press release from defense contractor Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) offers a great deal of hope that desalinization might become a lot easier and a lot cheaper. Desalinization is an energy-intensive process, requiring great pressure to force water through plastic polymers while separating out the salt and other undesirable substrates. The less pressure -- and thus, less energy -- that's required to filter out potable water, the easier it would be to place desalinization plants in areas that need it most.

Lockheed's innovation makes use of graphene, an atom-thin sheet of pure carbon that's arranged in a hexagonal pattern. Pencil lead displays a similar structure, but it's obviously too thick to be of much use as a filter. The development of graphene won the Nobel Prize in 2010, and researchers are already looking for many other ways to apply it to industrial problems. Applying graphene to water filtration problems seems not only sensible, but inevitable -- Lockheed simply got there first.

Lockheed's innovation, a perforated graphene sheet called Perforene, is already in producti