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This Membrane Technology Might Save the World

The world is mired in muck, largely due to the flaws of humankind as exposed by the ruthless pursuit of power and riches.

To many politicians, “public service” is a means to personal wealth. Governments all over the world continue to demonstrate – as they have throughout history – how evil they can really be.

And central banks have no idea what to do with monetary policy – the very definition of “incompetence.”

This failure of the authoritative elite to establish frameworks for efficient allocation of capital and to meet the basic needs of people across the globe – including the provision of reliable essential services – is the cause of much geopolitical tension.

And every day, we’re exposed to an overwhelming flow of bad news, sufficient to support the conclusion that the end times are, indeed, upon us.

The thing is, we’re predisposed to consume what the media feeds us.

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.”

So yeah, it may be easier to appreciate the negative than accentuate the positive in this mixed-up world, but survival depends on assessing risk. It doesn’t depend on obsessing over low-probability events.

As investors, we have to be careful not to succumb to negativity bias. And it takes discipline to overcome what is a very natural human reaction.

Hard as it is, sticking to concepts such as economic value, understanding the importance of constant learning and teaching, and appreciating that diverse input combined with rigor can lead to insight is the way to build long-term wealth.

We at Wall Street Daily are here to tell you that there’s a powerful force out there that confirms the positive aspects of humanity: innovation.

We’re not talking about the type of technological advances that make us “tools of our tools.”

These are innovations that will reduce costs and help us deliver essential services to underdeveloped populations, as well as the developed world, where infrastructure demands are heavy, too.

Last week, we talked about the new potential for desalination to solve the world’s potable water problem, based on a breakthrough in membrane technology that’s made the process of removing salt from seawater much more efficient.

For the first time, the Sorek desalination plant, near Tel Aviv, is using 16-inch seawater reverse osmosis membranes in a vertical arrangement.

This innovation in design – the intellectual property of IDE Technologies, which is co-owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd. and Delek Group Ltd. – has resulted in a reduced footprint and lower capital expenditure on the front end and lower energy consumption and substantial cost savings on the back end.

Another key step was the use of a chemical-free system using porous lava stone to capture microorganisms that would otherwise clog the membranes.

Earlier in development are advanced membranes made of atom-thick sheets of carbon, which hold the promise of further cutting the energy needs of desalination plants.

Turns out membrane technology can also help solve the world’s power problem, too.

In a recent study published in the journal Nature, researchers from the United States and Switzerland describe what may be the most powerful osmotic power generator in the world.

Osmotic power – or “blue energy” – is the energy derived from the difference in salinity between seawater and fresh water, which is harnessed to generate electricity.

When freshwater is separated from seawater by a semipermeable membrane, the freshwater moves, by osmosis, through the membrane into the seawater.

The theory of osmotic power has been around since the middle of the 20th century. Indeed, the world’s first prototype pressure-retarded osmotic power plant was opened by Statkraft in Norway in 2009. It was deemed uneconomical and shelved in 2013.

But better materials make for better theories.

For the new study, scientists set up a small tank separated by a single-layer, 0.65-nanometer-thick molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) nanopore membrane.

One side of the tank contained a higher concentration of seawater ions than the other side.

The membrane was about three atoms thick, its permeability established via a single nanometer-sized opening through which only positive ions could pass.

An electrode connected the two sides of the water tank. When positive ions squeezed through the membrane, their electrons transferred to the electrode. And that produced a current.

The breakthrough here was the ultra-thin MoS2 membrane and the microscopic opening.

Prior thinking had been that membranes made of two-dimensional materials would be the most efficient because water transported through a membrane scales inversely with membrane thickness.

Now we’re talking about a system with a single membrane, roughly one square meter wide, which could generate 1 megawatt of electricity. That’s enough to power 50,000 light bulbs.

Think about the world’s estuaries, where freshwater rivers meet saltwater seas.

This technology could be used to harvest an estimated 2 terawatts of clean energy worldwide – the equivalent of about 2,000 nuclear reactors – from locations where salt concentrations shift naturally.

That’s pretty positive game-changing innovation.

Money Quote

“We all operate in two contrasting modes, which might be called open and closed.

“The open mode is more relaxed, more receptive, more exploratory, more democratic, more playful and more humorous. The closed mode is the tighter, more rigid, more hierarchical, more tunnel-visioned.

“Most people, unfortunately, spend most of their time in the closed mode. Not that the closed mode cannot be helpful. If you’re leaping a ravine, the moment of takeoff is a bad time for considering alternative strategies. When you charge the enemy machine gun post, don’t waste energy trying to see the funny side of it. Do it in the ‘closed’ mode.

“But the moment the action is over, try to return to the ‘open’ mode – to open your mind again to all the feedback from our action that enables us to tell whether the action has been successful, or whether further action is needed to improve on what we have done.

“In other words, we must return to the open mode, because in that mode we are the most aware, most receptive, most creative, and therefore at our most intelligent.”

–John Cleese

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
–Dr. Linus Pauling

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

David Dittman

, Contributing Writer

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