Heat-conducting Composites for Seawater Desalination

Oct 08 2012

There are vast quantities of seawater available; drinking water, on the other hand, is in scarce supply. Desalination plants can convert seawater to drinking water. Yet these plants require pipelines made of a special kind of steel or titanium – expensive material that is growing increasingly difficult to procure. Heat-conducting polymer composites may soon replace titanium altogether. Researchers will present this heat-conducting plastic at the Composites trade fair, October 9-11, 2012, in Dusseldorf (Hall 8a, Booth A11). Drinking water is a scarce commodity – a fact no longer limited to the desert regions of the world. During the hot summer months, drinking water is rare in Mediterranean countries such as Spain and Portugal, too. As a result, industrial plants that can desalinate seawater and convert it to drinking water are on the rise. Here‘s how the principle of desalination works: seawater is sprayed on pipes heated by pumping hot gas or hot water through them. Pure water evaporates from the seawater, leaving a salty sludge behind. This process subjects the material and its properties to a diverse array of demands: the material from which the pipes are made must conduct heat and be particularly robust in resisting corrosion and the formation of deposits – and these properties must be durable over a long period of time. And for the water to evaporate properly, the piping must also be easily coated with seawater. This is why manufacturers to date have used only titanium and high-alloy forms of steel. Yet these materials are very costly. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM in Bremen are now developing an alternative to the titanium tubes: pipelines made of polymer composites. The special thing about this method: the polymer composites are a plastic, and yet they conduct heat. Another benefit: they can be produced in continuous lengths and are correspondingly more economical than their metal counterparts. But what did researchers do to make a polymer heat-conducting? “We introduced metal particles into the material - or more precisely, we add up to 50 percent copper microfibers by volume. This does not change the processing properties of the composite, and it can still be processed as any other polymer would, “notes Arne Haberkorn, a scientist at IFAM.

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