How Can We Make Desal Less Costly?
Focus on closing the waste stream loop with new filtration technologies, says Future H2O Director John Sabo
By John Sabo, director, Arizona State University-Future H2O
Desal has been the future of water for many decades — and will remain so until we can both reduce its costs and make it more sustainable.
But the standard approach to making desal less costly — minimizing energy costs per unit water recovered — has hit its thermodynamic limits. There’s no way to make the process more energy efficient.
My view: The next big breakthroughs will be in closing the waste stream loop, using what I call H2O+ technologies: new kinds of filters that leverage biomimicry — materials or designs used by nature — and nano-technologies which present filtration opportunities for targeted contaminants. Both innovations are efficient and low energy. Both will continue to bring down the costs of desal — for instance, in recapturing materials from brine instead of just discharging it into the ocean, where it alters nearshore ecosystems.
The next big breakthroughs will be in closing the waste stream loop, using what I call H2O+ technologies: new kinds of filters that leverage biomimicry — materials or designs used by nature — and nano-technologies which present filtration opportunities for targeted contaminants.
We also need to need to close loops with some of the waste products from produced waters to turn some of that “waste” into commercial products and opportunities, like industrial glues and heat or energy storage technologies.
Take arsenic and other valuable water contaminants that end up in microchip supply chains. Can we recapture them and bring them to market through specialized filtration applications? ASU-Future H2O is leveraging investors to stimulate development of these technologies by ASU engineering faculty.
This is classic “abundance” thinking. We need much more of it, in the United States and globally. One exciting new opportunity to create it: the Energy-Water Desalination Hub, announced late last month by the US Department of Energy (DOE).
The Hub, which is being funded by a five-year, $100-million DOE grant and led by DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is designed to turbocharge:
- Early-stage research and development of energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies; and
- Research for treating nontraditional water sources (e.g., brackish water and produced waters) for end uses currently not possible.
My hope: The Hub focuses as much as possible on H2O+ technologies as well as on the next breakthroughs necessary in thermodynamics to move desal forward.