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Producing clean water at a lower cost could be on the horizon after researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Penn State solved a complex problem that has baffled scientists for decades, until now.

Desalination membranes remove salt and other chemicals from water, a process critical to the health of society, cleaning billions of gallons of water for agriculture, energy production and drinking. The idea seems simple -- push salty water through and clean water comes out the other side -- but it contains complex intricacies that scientists are still trying to understand.

The research team, in partnership with DuPont Water Solutions, solved an important aspect of this mystery, opening the door to reduce costs of clean water production. The researchers determined desalination membranes are inconsistent in density and mass distribution, which can hold back their performance. Uniform density at the nanoscale is the key to increasing how much clean water these membranes can create.

"Reverse osmosis membranes are widely used for cleaning water, but there's still a lot we don't know about them," said Manish Kumar, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at UT Austin, who co-led the research. "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."

The findings were published today in Science.

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