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Where art aids science; spit crystals to desalination of sea water

Posted on 06/02/2018

Atlas is a Culture at King's College London collaboration with the Dental Institute’s Guy Carpenter, Jack Houghton and Matt Blakeley, the Randall Division scientists Brian Sutton and Alkistis Mitropoulou and Somerset House Studios artist Inés Cámara Leret.

Tackling the rising problem of sourcing freshwater, the project re-contextualises a process that happens naturally through the displacement of saliva. Atlas focuses the contributions of collaborators from across the world drawing our attention to our relationship with our seas.

Although 70% of our planet is covered with it, only 0.5% of our water needs are satisfied by desalinating seawater. There is a demand to develop new methods as current ones are polluting, expensive and high in energy cost. In response to this, a new method of desalination is being developed by a cross-faculty collaboration of King’s researchers originating from a previous collaboration with artist Inés Cámara Leret.

The original project was commissioned by Science Gallery London; Spit Crystals brought together researchers from the Randall Division and Dental Institute. Throughout this work crystals were grown from saliva showing the importance of proteins in the crystallisation process, leading to the idea that seawater could be desalinated through crystal formation.

"By adding protein to a salt mixture, the solution will fern whilst it dries and desalinate in a manner that’s different to normal evaporation," explains Jack Houghton, PhD student at the Dental Institute.  "We realised that controlling this process could lead to improvements in desalination methods allowing freshwater to be obtained from all seater."

“Inés brought together the two research groups at King’s College London and what came from that is an excellent example of how art has led to a true scientific collaboration.”

Atlas presents this new method of desalination, accompanied by a short explanatory film explaining and discussing the impact of the work, as well as an interactive website. The team has invited people globally to send samples of their local seawater. Those visiting the exhibition may select a sample from the archive and place it into a liquid-dispensing robotic machine. This machine, built by repurposing outdated lab equipment, will allow participants to witness the crystal formation process in real time.

View the video and find out how the Atlas project developed here.

The project will be on display at the Early Career Research Scheme Showcase Event at Somerset House from Feb 6-8.  More information can be found here.

 

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