Pictures: Saliva ferns
Frost ferns that form on glass during winter have inspired researchers in the Dental Institute, Department of Physics and Randall Institute to study the same process of crystal formation to understand how they might desalinate sea water. They started by investigating the ferning phenomena seen when saliva is dried on glass, which demonstrated that proteins guide the formation of sodium chloride crystals.
They discovered that the ferning phenomena is a fast way of visualizing the effects of different ions and proteins in controlling crystal growth. The crystal patterns seen in dried saliva are mostly sodium chloride but the ferns are formed by salivary proteins binding and controlling the crystal growth (as opposed to single larger crystals which form when no proteins are present).
Through the Kings Together Fund, we have been able to bring together scientists with a common interest in crystal growth to tackle one of the big challenges,’ said Dr Guy Carpenter, Dental Institute.
The team are looking into whether they can use ferning as a first step in desalination to create drinking water from sea water. Currently the process is highly energy intensive using high pressure pumps to filter the salt out by reverse osmosis. However ferning can occur at room temperature and has the potential lower costs.