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Different water filtration methods explained

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Distillation is probably the oldest method of water purification. Water is first heated to boiling. Then the water vapor rises to a condenser where cooling water lowers the temperature so the vapor is condensed, collected and stored. Most contaminants stay behind in the liquid phase vessel. However there can sometimes be what is called carry-overs found in the distilled water. Organics such as herbicides and pesticides, with boiling points lower than 100°C, cannot be removed efficiently and can actually become concentrated in the product water. Another disadvantage of distillation is cost. Distillation requires large amounts of energy and water and is very slow to produce clean water.

Distilled water can also be very acidic (low pH), thus it should be contained in glass. Since there is not much left after distillation, distilled water is often called "hungry" water. It lacks oxygen and minerals and has a flat taste, which is why it is mostly used in industrial processes.

Table 1. Distillation
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Removes a broad range of contaminants
  • Reusable

  • Some contaminants can be carried into the condensate
  • Requires careful maintenance to ensure purity
  • Consumes large amounts of energy
  • System usually takes a large space on counter


Ion Exchange

faucet filterThe ion exchange process percolates water through bead-like spherical resin materials (ion-exchange resins). Ions in the water are exchanged for other ions fixed to the beads. The two most common ion-exchange methods are softening and deionization.

Softening is used primarily as a pretreatment method to reduce water hardness prior to reverse osmosis (RO) processing. The softeners contain beads that exchange two sodium ions for every calcium or magnesium ion removed from the "softened" water.

Deionization (DI) beads exchange either hydrogen ions for cations or hydroxyl ions for anions. The cation exchange resins, made of styrene and divinylbenzene containing sulfonic acid groups, will exchange a hydrogen ion for any cations they encounter (e.g., Na+, Ca++, Al+++). Similarly, the anion exchange resins, made of styrene and containing quaternary ammonium groups, will exchange a hydroxyl ion for any anions (e.g., Cl-). The hydrogen ion from the cation exchanger unites with the hydroxyl ion of the anion exchanger to form pure water.

These resins may be packaged in separate bed exchangers with separate units for the cation and anion exchange beds. Or, they may be packed in mixed bed exchangers containing a mixture of both types of resins. In either case, the resin must be "regenerated" once it has exchanged all its hydrogen and/or hydroxyl ions for charged contaminants in the water. This regeneration reverses the purification process, replacing the contaminants bound to the DI resins with hydrogen and hydroxyl ions.

Deionization can be an important component of a total water purification system when used in combination with other methods discussed in this primer such as RO filtration and carbon adsorption. DI systems effectively remove ions, but they do not effectively remove most organics or microorganisms. Microorganisms can attach to the resins, providing a culture media for rapid bacterial growth and subsequent pyrogen generation. The advantages and disadvantages of this technology are summarized below.


Table 2. Deionization
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Removes dissolved inorganics effectively.
  • Regenerable (service deionization).
  • Relatively inexpensive initial capital investment
  • Does not effectively remove particles, pyrogens or bacteria.
  • DI beds can generate resin particles and culture bacteria.
  • High operating costs over long-term.
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