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Better Water Through Science—Open Innovation’s Hunt for Freshwater

New processes and technologies, developed through an open innovation platform, could springboard desalination from the margin to the mainstream of a global strategy to combat water scarcity.

Helping to accelerate the hunt for those breakthroughs is a new $200,000 incentive in the form of an open innovation challenge.

Although desalination has advanced dramatically in the last decade, its technology and processes are still too energy inefficient—often accounting for more than half its cost—and expensive. Desalinated seawater can run from $3 to $6 per 1,000 gallons, while costs for other forms of freshwater are a fraction of that.

It’s estimated that by 2025 nearly two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water stress conditions. Desalination plants operate in 140 countries and produce about 20 billion gallons of fresh water per day, which is still literally a drop in the bucket, representing about 0.3 percent of total freshwater use globally.

This demand is set to grow. As the world population migrates to cities, the demand for desalination is increasing because water use is growing at a faster rate than economic development. Naturally, as nations develop, the demand for water increases, and we are depleting natural sources of fresh water faster than ever before. At least over 1 billion people around the world don’t have access to clean water.

A breakthrough in desalination could help alleviate some of this pressure. As the majority of the global population lives near a coast region, demand for water is greatest right where desalination can happen. If a more cost-effective, energy-efficient method of desalinating seawater is found, coastal areas—where it’s needed most—are well-positioned to take advantage. The time is right for this to happen now, as renewable energy has become cheaper than conventional energy in many parts of the world, opening the doors for innovation and disruptive technologies.

The open innovation challenge aims to identify new solutions to lower total desalination costs and emissions through cleaner energy sources, incorporating advanced materials, and better process integration. Solutions must be innovative, impactful, feasible, and scalable across the globe.

A view of the desalination plant in Palma de Mallorca on April 4, 2014. The desalination plant has a capacity of treating daily 65,000 cubic meters of drinking water per day. Photo: JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images

State of the Art and Innovation
Current desalination technologies fall largely into two categories: reverse osmosis and thermal distillation.

Reverse osmosis (RO) is when water is pushed at very high pressure through membrane filters that separate the salt from the water. There are a number of challenges with RO—the two most serious of which are the very high amount of energy required to push the water through, and the propensity of the membrane pores to become blocked.

Thermal distillation is a process that uses energy to evaporate water, thereby separating it from the salt, and then condensing it. This process is used widely where fossil fuels are inexpensive due to its high level of energy use. A number of other methods of desalination also exist and are similarly energy intensive.

In the last ten years, we’ve learned to capture and conserve energy more efficiently, but there’s still work to be done. We’re now looking at new materials, technology, and enhancement to processes that can mitigate the issues. We need new innovation that focuses on the use of renewable energy sources and allows us to use waste heat that is created.

There is also an opportunity for the development of technologies that small and medium enterprises can deploy, as there continues to be a significant paradigm shift in how people get access to water. Utility companies may no longer be the only suppliers as smaller wind and solar plants start to utilize new technologies that allow desalination on a small scale, particularly for isolated communities, island regions, and low-populations density areas where large-scale infrastructure is lacking.

To take part in this open innovation challenge, visit the website where entries are being accepted. The deadline to submit entries is July 16, and winners will be announced in November.

Dr. Rashid Khan is deputy director of Innovation & Intellectual Property for Aramco Entrepreneurship.

Better Water Through Science—Open Innovation’s Hunt for Freshwater was originally published on Ideas Lab

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