AP NEWS

Greenwich student film explores cutting edge desalination research

September 4, 2016

GREENWICH — A relatively new cutting-edge material called nanoporous graphene is the width of an atom but possesses qualities that could boost the capacity of desalination plants worldwide to filter seawater, potentially ending the globe’s water crisis, Kathryn Papas and Sofia Dodaro said Sunday.

The two 16-year-old Greenwich High School juniors spoke yesterday afternoon after the screening of their recently completed short documentary film, “Nanoporous Graphene: A Filter for the Future,” the result of five months of work to understand Massachuetts Institute of Technology materials scientist David Cohen Tanugi’s research into ultra-thin filters made of graphene, a one atom thick form of carbon. About 20 people attended.

While still a theoretical application of the material, Tanugi’s research alongside fellow MIT scientist Jeffrey Grossman used computer simulations to test if nanoporous graphene’s greater permeability would allow water to be purified faster than currently established materials, the students said.

“It’s a cutting-edge technology which is probably going to be huge,” Papas said.

Dodaro and Papas, students in Greenwich High School’s Innovation Lab program, were inspired to pursue a project to study desalination technologies by witnessing water restrictions while visiting family in California and also by water pollution in Lebanon where some of Papas’ relatives live.

“Being in California and seeing there being restrictions on how much water you could use and when; it was part of everyday life and something we don’t experience,” Papas said.

The research that went into the film originated in an Innovation Lab assignment to build their own battery powered desalination device, the students said. However, because the process of desalination is so complex and energy intensive, they were unable meet their goal, but with their teacher’s blessings soldiered on to finish a research paper to meet their course requirement.

To become acquainted with Cohen Tanugi’s research, the pair studied his MIT dissertation on the topic, interviewing him via Skype about the technical underpinnings of the research.

The utility of graphene as a desalination filter relies on being able to carefully control the size of the tiny nanopores so they are small enough to catch salt molecules but large enough for water to pass, the students said.

Another variable that would impact the real world utility of graphene in desalination would be keeping the water being filtered in close to room temperature range, the students said.

“The hope would be because more water can flow through graphene filters that eventually it would lower the cost of desalination,” Dodaro said.

Sarah Goldin, Ph.D., the pair’s science teacher in the Innovation Lab program, said the students’ decision to tackle graduate level research was a result of the autonomy they were given in the project based learning approach the Innovation Lab encourages.

“They were able to work with MIT Ph.D level research, which is remarkable,” she said. “It definitely allowed them to stretch themselves.”