Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Desalination membranes are used around the world to to remove salt and other chemicals from water, yielding vital water for both agriculture and human consumption.
Despite their widespread deployment, scientists have struggled to identify the material characteristics that influence the efficiency of desalination membranes.
The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Science, showed most current membranes featured highly variable densities, reducing their efficiency.
By creating more uniform density at tiny scales, researchers were able to increase the amount of clean water the membranes can produce.
"Reverse osmosis membranes are widely used for cleaning water, but there's still a lot we don't know about them," study co-author Manish Kumar said in a news release.
"We couldn't really say how water moves through them, so all the improvements over the past 40 years have essentially been done in the dark," said Kumar, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Texas, Austin.
The membranes with uniform densities were 30 to 40 percent more efficient, allowing them to produce more clean water, while using less energy.
Authors of the new paper hope their research will inspire the development of newer, more efficient desalination projects, which can supply clean water to residential homes, farms and other types of users.
"Fresh water management is becoming a crucial challenge throughout the world," said co-author Enrique Gomez.
"Shortages, droughts -- with increasing severe weather patterns, it is expected this problem will become even more significant. It's critically important to have clean water availability, especially in low-resource areas," said Gomez, a professor of chemical engineering at Penn State University.
The new research, funded by the National Science Foundation and DuPont, was spawned after scientists at DuPont noted thicker desalination membranes were more efficient than thinner membranes -- the opposite of what scientists expected.
Now, researchers know the efficiency difference can be explained by the enhanced uniformity found in thicker membranes.