When it comes to research, most everything on paper looks good. It’s not until you step out of the lab that you realize research and good intentions sometimes have you going in the wrong direction. That was the case for Shreya Dave when she was an MIT doctoral student working on a new kind of filter for desalination plants. While much of her research focused on how to make filter materials that could have a high flow rate at the pressures they would encounter when put into use, her visit to a working reverse-osmosis desalination plant in Spain revealed that this permeability was hardly ever a source of operational problems. Instead, problems such as the handling of the filters during removal for cleaning or replacement were what caused delays and added expense.
Dave and her thesis advisor, MIT professor of materials science and engineering Jeffrey Grossman, thought the process they went through might hold important lessons for other researchers about the importance of doing detailed economic analysis and having in-depth conversations with people using the technology that the research is focused on.
By “getting out into the trenches, you really do find out where their challenges are,” Grossman says. “You learn a lot from that experience that’s not out there in the literature. You can’t find this stuff in papers.”
Dave, now a research affiliate at MIT and CEO of a startup company working on new filter systems, was able to readjust her research focus and develop a potentially more useful set of applications for her work.
According to an article from MIT News, a combination of what is known as techno-economic analysis, along with the extensive interviews, led the MIT team to a whole different area of applications. They found that a different set of industrial-scale processes, for chemical and petroleum separation processing, could actually benefit much more from the use of their graphene oxide filters than the desalination industry could.