There are a few Holy Grails in science: nuclear fusion, the unified field theory, dark matter, artificial photosynthesis, and so on. Many of the breakthroughs scientists make every day, however, don’t relate to common, day-to-day lives. The discovery of gravitational waves was huge, but to most people on the street, it didn’t change a thing. Discovering a material that can turn seawater into drinking water, on the other hand, can improve millions and millions of lives.

Access to clean drinking water remains one of the world’s most stubborn problems. According to the UN, about 1.2 billion people live in areas of with scant supplies of clean water.

Another 1.6 billion face water shortages, without the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers. The UN estimates that by 2030, half the world’s population will live in areas under high water stress.

However, a breakthrough by a team of researchers at the University of Manchester could help turn that all around. They’ve developed a graphene oxide sieve that can filter salt out of seawater and make it drinkable.

Graphene has been tried before, but when it’s submersed it tends to expand, allowing small salts to pass through. However, after treating the graphene with an epoxy resin, the researchers can control the size of the pores. Smaller salts get caught while water passes through, without a significant loss of flow.

Current desalination plants tend to be expensive and messy, and they employ polymer membranes.

However, the graphene oxide membrane hasn’t been tested against the latest polymers on the market just yet. Nevertheless, desalinating water is becoming an increasingly necessary option around the globe. Israel, for example, now gets more than half its drinking water from desalination plants.

Before their membrane changes the world, the researchers need to test how they stand up to extended periods of time in seawater and how long they can go without cleaning.

The hope is that smaller scale membranes can be developed so that countries that can’t afford large desalination plants can still use these filters to make fresh water.