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66-year-old Alan Turing paper inspires new water-purification technique

When you think about the English computer scientist Alan Turing you most probably think of either his code-breaking efforts at Bletchley Park during World War II or his early hypotheses about artificial intelligence, which resulted in the formulation of the famous Turing Test.

Something you probably don’t associate him with? Groundbreaking chemistry — and, more specifically, groundbreaking chemistry which could soon be used to provide people around the world with a more efficient way of obtaining drinkable freshwater. But that could soon change.

Turing only published one paper on this subject during his life, just two years before his untimely death in the early 1950s. In the paper, he described what have come to be known as “Turing structures,” an attempt to chemically explain naturally occurring patterns such as the spots on a leopard or the stripes on a zebra. Jump forward to 2018, and researchers in China have now used Turing’s influential concept as the basis for work providing more efficient desalination, referring to the process by which salt is removed from saltwater to make it safely drinkable.

“We successfully developed a facile route based on interfacial polymerization to generate polyamide membranes with Turing structures,” Lin Zhang, a material scientist from Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, told Digital Trends. “These membranes can remove salts from water up to four times faster than common nanofiltration membranes, [because] there are high water permeability sites in Turing structures.”

What the researchers have developed is a Turing-inspired membrane covered in nanoscale stripes or spots. These patterns, which are slightly raised so as to form bumps, are the result of a chemical reaction accelerating and decelerating at the same time. In this case, they allow water to flow through the nanofiltration material far more quickly than the usual membranes used for this task.

However, while they speed up the process, they do so while remaining every bit as good at removing salt. The result is a far more efficient method of carrying out this important job. In tests using water containing gold nanoparticles, the new nanomaterial was shown to outperform 16 commercially available membranes used for desalination.

“This tech could be used for large-scale and low-cost water treatment applications, such as water softening, desalination, and removal of high valence ions, and other impurities from drinking water,” Zhang continued. “Next, we will focus on Turing-type polyamide nanofiltration membrane preparation by different methods, and prepare [a] polyamide reverse osmosis membrane with [the] Turing structure. We plan to commercialize this tech in the very near future.”

For more details on the chemistry behind this innovative material, check out the researchers’ recent paper, published in the journal Science.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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