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Hello, I attend 7th grade at Eisenhower Middle School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am doing a project in which I have to use bio mimicry (mimicking nature to solve human problems) to solve a food system problem. My group and I would like to solve the problem we have that so much water is in the world, yet very little of it is fresh. We know that there have already been desalination plants invented, but they aren't very efficient. We were thinking about making a desalination plant that is based off the salt glands that can be found in many sea birds. This may be a more efficient way of taking the salt out of water. We have been doing much research over the course of the past week, but many of the articles and videos that we are trying to read are too difficult for us to understand. I was wondering if you could put in simple language the processes used by the birds to desalinate their water. Thank You!
Question Date: 2015-05-05
Answer 1:

This is a good idea, but I am sorry to say that it is probably beyond your ability to do in a middle school science lab. The organs that sea birds have that allow them to remove salt have evolved over millions of years, and being able to duplicate that for human purposes would require heavy-duty genetic engineering. They rely on specific proteins ("enzymes") that move salt molecules across cell membranes using (relatively) less energy. You would need to manufacture enzymes yourself. Finally, the way that the birds do it does take energy, but that energy can be eaten through food rather than some other source.

I am going to suggest something you can do instead: you live in a desert. That means that it's sunny most of the time. Have you considered distilling water using the energy from sunlight? It is not energy-efficient, but it is a kind of energy you have more of than you need.

What you might try to do is make a bottle of seawater, connect that via a plastic tube to another, empty, bottle, and stick black cloth into the seawater. The idea is that the black cloth will absorb the sunlight and heat the water, which will then evaporate move to the other bottle where it will become liquid again. The salt will be left behind in the bottle with the cloth.

Before you do this, understand this: I DO NOT KNOW IF THIS IS GOING TO WORK. I am just using an idea based on what I know about Physics. But then, this is science - you don't know whether it will work or not. If you did know, there would be no reason to experiment on it. So there is nothing wrong with trying it!

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