Last month the New York Times published an article about how the West is likely entering a prolonged period of water shortages. Similiar reports have recently been published in Australia detailing expected extended droughts over the next 50 years.

The USA and Australia have responded to these reports in different ways.

Several weeks ago I blogged about the current administration’s effort to push bulk water tranfers from Canada. This week Australia announced they were about to embark on a major desalination research project with the view of spending $250 million over seven years and cutting energy costs for desalination in half. Interestingly, their belief that such results are doable is based on recent research in the US. Further, they considered long distance bulk water transfers. They concluded, however, that doing the research to lower the cost of desalination was less expensive and complicated. And too, the ocean is a more reliable resource.  See my concluding remarks after the article posted below.

Thirsty Australia Advances Desalination Technology

MELBOURNE, Australia, May 18, 2007 (ENS) – The delivery of energy efficient water desalination to drought-stricken Australia received a boost today with the establishment of a new collaboration between the government research agency CSIRO and nine Australian universities.

The research aims to advance water desalination as an alternative water supply option for Australia by increasing efficiency, and reducing the financial and environmental costs of producing desalinated water.

Australia, especially southern Australia, is short of water, and the country is experiencing the worst drought on record this year. Desalination of seawater is a possible additional supply, but it requires a lot of electricity, and is expensive, costing about A$1.10 per 1,000 liters (US$.90 per 264 gallons).

The new research effort, known as the Advanced Membrane Technologies for Water Treatment Research Cluster, is led by Professor Stephen Gray of Victoria University.

As a first step, the multi-disciplinary research team will carry out an evaluation of existing membranes and develop new energy efficient membranes.

Professor Stephen Gray is director of the Institute of Sustainability and Innovation at Victoria University, where he is responsible for research, education and industry liaison in the water, energy and sustainable buildings sectors. (Photo courtesy ISI)

“Many desalination and recycling programs rely on a process called reverse osmosis, where the water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane, removing salts and any other contaminants,” Gray explains.”These membranes need regular replacement and cleaning, but they also require a large amount of energy to force water through what are nano-sized pores,” he says.

When contaminants such as salts are removed from water, some of them adhere to the surface of the membrane, building up on the surface, increasing the pressure and energy required to desalinate the water.

“Chemicals are used to clean the membranes, but membrane surfaces that are less sticky would reduce the pressure and energy required and the frequency of cleaning,” Gray says.

The researchers aim to improve membrane anti-fouling properties, increasing the ability of the membranes to clean themselves without chemicals.

The research will link with and inform related CSIRO research into membrane and carbon nanotube water filtration technologies.

Carbon nanotubes, molecules made of carbon atoms, are hollow and more than 50,000 times thinner than a human hair. Billions of these tubes serve as the pores in a desalination membrane.


Carbon nanotubes can be made in many different configurations. (Photo courtesy Softpedia)

The smooth inner walls of the nanotubes allow liquids and gases to rapidly flow through, while the miniscule pore size keeps out larger molecules.Alan Gregory, urban water research leader at CSIRO, says, “In combination with other research projects led by CSIRO, we aim to reduce by up to 50 percent the amount of energy required to desalinate seawater using membranes. This same technology will have benefits for the treatment and recycling of wastewater.”

CSIRO researchers are using nanotechnology to develop a new membranes for desalination with electrodialysis technology, which they say may lead to breakthrough technologies in cost-effective and highly efficient water recovery systems.

Nanotechnology for water desalination is a rapidly developing field. In the United States, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory announced in May 2006 their creation of a membrane made of carbon nanotubes and silicon that may offer less expensive desalinization.

The CSIRO scientists are developing new “inorganic-organic nanocomposite membranes for desalination by electrodialysis membrane process, which involves the incorporation of oxide nanoparticles into ion-conducting polymers to form new nanocomposites.”

“This also means we could potentially provide more secure water supplies while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Gregory.

Other partners in the membrane research program are the University of New South Wales, Monash University, the University of Melbourne, RMIT University, Curtin University of Technology, the University of Queensland, Deakin University, and Murdoch University.

Funding for the research was announced by Minister for Education, Science and Training Julie Bishop under the Flagship Collaboration Fund.

Desalination membrane advances cannot come soon enough for Australia, which is opening giant desalination plants already based on existing membrane technology, even if the water they produce is costly.


The new Perth Seawater Desalination Plant, shown here under construction, is the largest desalination plant in the southern hemisphere. (Photo courtesy ABB)

In April, the Water Corporation of Western Australia opened the 45 gigaliter Perth Seawater Desalination Plant. The US$290 million project will guarantee 17 percent of Western Australia’s current water needs, regardless of rainfall or drought.On Tuesday Western Australia Premier Alan Carpenter announced that a second desalination plant of the same size would be built at Binningup.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Government of Premier Morris Iemma is moving forward with a huge desalination plant south of Sydney at Kurnell. The plant will use reverse osmosis technology with membranes that remove salts and other impurities from seawater to produce drinking water.

The environmental assessment for the construction and operation of a pipeline for Sydney’s desalination plant is open for public comment to Monday May 28.

As part of the desalination project, an 18 kilometer pipeline will be constructed from Kurnell, across Botany Bay, to Erskineville.

Sydney Water Managing Director Kerry Schott said the Kurnell plant would be 100 percent powered by green energy and would guarantee Sydney’s water supply.

“Given the uncertainty of climate change and Sydney’s growing population, alternative sources of water need to be developed,” said Schott.

“The desalination plant will supply about seven percent of Sydney’s water supply by 2009 but it can be scaled up further if required,” he said. “This gives us a supply of water that does not depend on rainfall.”


I blogged last December about the LLNL scientists visit to Australia. Every provincial newspaper in Australia had a write up on that visit. This contrasts sharply with the notice that was given to the work of the LLNL scientists in the USA. Their write ups were mostly confined to science journals. Perhaps that’s why the Bush administration is actively considering bulk water transfers rather than accelerating the pace of desalination research. The US political class simply hasn’t been told whats going on in the US labs. Its not that the info isn’t available. Unlike a year ago,the implications of current research has pushed into corporate America. Two weeks ago I posted that IBM was entering into membrane research in the belief that great strides would be made in the next five years.

More to the point, as in the USA –the Australians considered pumping water over great distances and mountains and concluded that water desalination research was the better alternative. Consider this article.

Saltwater offers best hope, says scientist

Desalination and an inland pipeline are two of the options being considered by the State Government as it grapples with Melbourne’s water shortage.

Pumping water over the Great Dividing Range would probably be as energy intensive as desalination, he said, but the supply would be less reliable.

“We believe we can significantly reduce the amount of energy needed for desalination and this will make it even more competitive,” he said.

Its a shame sober men can’t come to the same conclusions in the USA.

One big problem currently with using carbon nanotubes is producing them in high volumes at low prices. Luckily carbon nanotubes can be used for an infinite variety of purposes. (imho carbon nanotubes will wind up being what steel was to the 19th century and plastics was to the 20th century.) Because of this great diversity of applications a lot of different industries are attacking the problem of producing carbon nanotubes in high volume at low prices. For this reason desalination membrane researchers and administrators need to look at how other research disciplines and industries are grappling with producing carbon nanotubes cheaply in volume–with an eye out to adapting their processes to making carbon nanotube desalination membranes.

Below is an article about work in Germany being done to make computer chips in volume at cost from carbon nanotubes. imho it makes for interesting reading.

May 16, 2007
Nanowerk LLC
Carbon nanotubes to the rescue of Moore’s law
(Nanowerk Spotlight) Over the next few years, semiconductor fabrication will move from the current state-of-the-art generation of 90 nanometer processes to the next 65 nm and 45 nm generations. Intel is even already working on 32 nm processor technology, code-named “Westmere”, that is expected to hit the market sometime around 2009. The result of these efforts will be billion-transistor processors where a billion or more transistor-based circuits are integrated into a single chip. One of the increasingly difficult problems that chip designers are facing is that the high density of components packed on a chip makes interconnections increasingly difficult. In order to be able to continue the trend predicted by Moore’s law, at least for a few more years, researchers are now turning to alternative materials for transistors and interconnect and one of the prime candidates for this job are single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT). However, one of the biggest limitations of conventional carbon nanotube device fabrication techniques today is the inability to scale up the processes to fabricate a large number of devices on a single chip. Researchers in Germany have now demonstrated the directed and precise assembly of single-nanotube devices with an integration density of several million devices per square centimeter, using a novel aspect of nanotube dielectrophoresis. This development is a big step towards commercial realization of CNT-based electronic devices and their integration into the existing silicon-based processor technologies.

Ultra-large scale array of single-walled carbon nanotube devices fabricated by dielectrophoretic deposition

The image on the above shows a schematic of an ultra-large scale array of single-walled carbon nanotube devices fabricated by dielectrophoretic deposition from an aqueous solution. The scanning electron micrograph on the right shows the zoom-in to one region of the array showing each electrode pair bridged by an individual carbon nanotube in a self-limiting mechanism. (Images: Dr. Vijayaraghavan, Dr. Krupke, Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe)

“The fundamental issue of CNT device fabrication remains the biggest challenge for effective commercialization of nanotube electronics” Dr. Ralph Krupke explains to Nanowerk. “For CNT electronics to become a reality, it should be possible to scale up the fabrication technique to simultaneously and reproducibly fabricate a very large number of such devices on a single chip, each accessible individually for electronic transport. Conventional nanotube growth and device fabrication techniques using chemical vapor deposition or spin-casting are unable to achieve this, due to a lack of precise control over nanotube positioning and orientation.”

“Since these nanotubes are usually grown at temperatures greater then 500°C and show no growth selectivity between metallic and semi-conducting types, they can not be directly integrated into silicon-based micro-fabrication” adds Dr. Aravind Vijayaraghavan. “Due to the difficulties in handling and manipulating these nano-scale objects at the individual level, various attempts to assemble them into functional devices have met with limited success. In the ideal case, it should be possible to position an individual nanotube at a predefined location and orientation, forming robust, low-resistance, ohmic contacts to two metallic leads. Furthermore, it should be possible to do this at a scalable integration density with each nanotube forming an individually addressable device.”

Krupke and Vijayaraghavan are scientists at the Institute of Nanotechnology (INT) at the Research Center Karlsruhe in Germany. Together with colleagues from the INT and the University of Karlsruhe they authored a recent paper in Nano Letters, titled “Ultra-Large-Scale Directed Assembly of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube Devices”. In it, they report a novel aspect of dielectrophoretic deposition of CNTs, where the dielectrophoretic force field changes upon nanotube deposition and thereby self limits the directed assembly to a single nanotube or nanotube bundle at predefined locations.

In 2003, the group demonstrated that it is possible to deposit CNT bundles from an aqueous solution using a process called dielectrophoresis which uses inhomogeneous alternating electric fields to move and assemble nano-scale objects.

“Since then, we have made tremendous advances in understanding the dynamics of a carbon nanotube moving in such an electric field” says Vijayaraghavan. “The required inhomogeneous electric fields are generated by two opposing needle-shaped electrodes with a microscopic gap between their tips. We have discovered the mechanism that allows for a self-limiting deposition of CNTs to one per electrode pair. This happens because the first CNT that is deposited in the gap changes the electric field distribution around it incisively, leading to a repulsion of subsequent CNTs that attempt to enter the region of the gap.”

The researchers in Karlsruhe have also developed and optimized the use of capacitively coupled electrodes, which enables them to reduce their dimensions and increase the density of electrode pairs that can be incorporated on a chip.

“Together, this allows us to fabricate separately addressable, individual SWCNT devices at an integration density comparable to ultra-large scale integration” says Krupke. “This is three to four orders of magnitude greater than what has been possible so far with any other technique.”

This technique is very versatile. It is compatible with SWCNTs from any source, which are suitably dispersed in an aqueous surfactant solution. SWCNTs separated based on their length, diameter or even chirality can be readily assembled into large-scale functional arrays using this technique. The process is fully compatible with post-processing techniques and current microelectronics fabrication technologies, requires no high-temperature steps or chemical modification of the substrate or the CNT and is a one-step process that can be performed under ambient conditions.

This achievement takes CNT electronic devices a big step closer to integrating with microelectronics and expanding their scope for commercial viability. On a laboratory scale, it now allows for the fabrication of a large number of devices with identical CNT source and deposition conditions, to perform truly statistical measurements of CNT properties like electronic transport or Raman mapping.

By Michael Berger, Copyright 2007 Nanowerk LLC

Here’s an interesting piece which shows on video how carbon nanotubes form. It looks to be a follow up of some work done in March at Cambridge.

Watch amazing footage of how nanotubes form
Environmental transmission electron microscopy image sequence of carbon nanofibre growth. Drawings (lower row) indicate schematically the Ni catalyst deformation and C-Ni interface. Credit: University of Cambridge

Environmental transmission electron microscopy image sequence of carbon nanofibre growth. Drawings (lower row) indicate schematically the Ni catalyst deformation and C-Ni interface. Credit: University of Cambridge

A team of scientists led by the Department’s Dr Stephan Hofmann have successfully produced live video footage that shows how carbon nanotubes, more than 10,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair, form.

The video sequences can be viewed by clicking the links below. They show nanofibres and nanotubes nucleating around miniscule particles of nickel and are already offering greater insight into how these microscopic structures self-assemble.

These two videos show how the nickel reacts a process called catalytic chemical vapour deposition (CVD). This is one of several methods of producing nanotubes, and involves the application of a gas containing carbon (in this case acetylene) to minute crystalline droplets referred to as “catalyst islands” (the nickel).

In conditions appropriate to creating nano-fibres, the catalyst was squeezed upwards gradually as carbon formed around it. When the application of gas was reduced to create single-walled nanotubes, the carbon instead lifted off the catalyst to form a tubular structure.
Nanotube movie 1

Nanotube movie 2
In particular, the team discovered that the carbon network is guided into tubular shape by a drastic restructuring of the nickel – the catalyst in the process. They were also able to track and time the deposition of the carbon around the nickel.

Carbon nanotubes are new building blocks enabling engineers to improve and further miniaturise everyday electronic devices like computers or mobile phones. At the moment scientists can grow nanotubes but cannot accurately control their structure.

Being able to do so is vital as it is the very structure of a nanotube that dictates its properties. The nano-scale video observations mean that scientists will be able to better understand the nucleation of nanotubes and are therefore an important step on the route towards application.

The two sequences show action taking place in real time on an astonishingly small scale. The difference in size between a single-walled nanotube and a human hair is close to the difference between the same human hair and the Eiffel Tower. The microscopic scale involved has, in the past, made it difficult to understand the growth process.

The team used X-rays produced at a synchrotron (a type of particle accelerator) and a modified high-resolution transmission electron microscope to observe and film the catalytic chemical vapour deposition process.

As the gas is applied carbon sticks to the catalyst islands forming layers of graphite. In conditions appropriate to creating nanofibres, the nickel particle was pushed upwards in a series of peristaltic movements as the carbon continued to deposit on its sides. At several points the nickel formed a cap which almost “popped” out of the forming tube, leaving a layer of graphite behind it. This process is called “bambooing”, because the resultant carbon nanofibre is a cylinder containing several cavities, each one separated by one of these graphite layers, similar in form to bamboo. Throughout the whole process, the nickel remained crystalline rather than liquid.

The team then looked at conditions more appropriate to producing single-walled carbon nanotubes, which involved less acetylene. The catalyst is not squeezed upwards. Instead, a cap of carbon formed on the top of the nickel, and gradually extended from it to form a tubular structure. The catalyst island was squeezed and reshaped by this process and was moulded by the carbon forming around it rather than retaining its original form.

Dr Stephan Hofmann, who led the research, said: “In order to reach the full application potential for nanotubes, we need to be able to accurately control their growth first. As a manifestation of the impressive progress of nanometrology, we are actually now able to watch molecular objects grow. This new video footage shows that the catalyst itself remains crystalline but is constantly changing its shape as the carbon network is formed around it.

“We cannot yet solve the problem of not being able to self-assemble carbon nanotubes with well-defined characteristics, but we have discovered that if we are to do so, we need to be mindful not just of the carbon dynamics but the changing shape of the catalyst as well.”

Source: University of Cambridge

This news is brought to you by

IBM has jumped into water production & distribution. They currently have a web page that states:

Micromanaging our environment down to the nano-level

Five Innovations That Could Change Your Life in Five Years.

Early this year, IBM will undertake new research projects focused on the environment: advanced water modeling, water filtration via nanotechnology and efficient solar power systems.

Advanced water modeling, distribution and management systems

The ability to support economic and population growth has been contingent upon whether urban planners can ensure a reliable supply of water to residential and commercial establishments.

With the ubiquity of IP-based technology today, it is possible to envision a technologically enabled “smart” water distribution system that helps manage the end-to-end distribution, from reservoirs to pumping stations to smart pipes to holding tanks to intelligent metering at the user site so consumption could be managed in a responsible way.

The water distribution system would serve as a grid, much like a utility grid, at multiple levels: federal/central, regional, city/town and even down to a single residence or commercial establishment.

Water desalination using carbon nanotubes
The current methods of desalinating water, reverse osmosis and distillation, are both expensive and high maintenance. IBM will research methods of filtering water at the molecular level, using carbon nanotubes or molecular configurations, which can potentially remove the salt and impurities with less energy and money per gallon.

Efficient solar power systems

Political instability, the high cost of fossil fuels and worries about global warming have increased interest in alternative energies. IBM is a leader in developing silicon technologies-the microprocessors that run the world’s leading game machines. We believe technology developments in this area will help further advance solar power and make it more efficient.

Why is IBM jumping into the Game. Many major companies are getting involved because the demand for water is rising faster than governments currently have solutions. This means the price of water will rise. Consider this Reuters Article:

ANALYSIS-Thirsty world captures investors’ attention

02 May 2007 11:00:41 GMT

By Christine Stebbins CHICAGO, May 2 (Reuters) – The competition for clean water is heating up and the world’s businesses have noticed.

The need to feed up to two billion more people by 2025, booming industrialization in developing countries like China, and a warming climate seen threatening the world’s most precious natural resource has investors serious about water.

“Regardless of what happens to the economy — you can bet and bank on a predictable demand for water. It is a product that is essential to life,” said Deane Dray, who analyzes water markets for Goldman Sachs in New York.

“People will largely pay ‘whatever’ because it is life-sustaining and there is no substitute. You put all those together, it is very clear why companies are enthusiastic about water.”

The United Nations Human Development Report for 2006 said that by 2025, if current global water consumption continues, more than 3 billion of the world’s 7.9 billion people will be living in areas where water is scarce.

Indeed, conflicts over water rights are already going on in dozens of areas from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to Australia, India, eastern Asia and the U.S. Southwest.

One expert estimates that in the next 25 years trillions of dollars will be needed to upgrade fresh water and waste water technology and build new infrastructure to deliver water, with the bulk of that money to be spent in Asia.

“Infrastructure upgrades that are going to be required over the next 25 years on a global basis could be close to $20 trillion,” said John Balbach, managing partner at Cleantech Group, a venture capital research firm in green technology based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Such huge costs mean a budget nightmare for governments, a reality check that water companies also factor in. Eventually, they say, people in all countries will have to ration water use by price and realize it is not a free resource for the world.

“Governments globally are reaching a point where they’re not able to finance the delivery of cheap water, which is why the private sector is getting more and more interested,” said Balbach.


Global private industry sales in water-related sectors are estimated at $400 billion annually, including water infrastructure, treatment plants and new technologies to purify water. Of that total, $50 billion are bottled water sales.

Big investors seem most focused now in higher-tech segments of water companies including filtration, desalination and purification systems. But venture capital is also gravitating toward innovative solutions to costly problems.

California-based Underground Solutions Inc. slips pipes underground to repair leaky pipes that were installed more than 100 years ago without ever digging up city streets.

“Investments in water-related technology will go up by at least 50 percent this year,” said Nick Parker, Cleantech’s co-founder and chairman.

A recent Goldman Sachs report said it was likely, though, that over the next five years water system solutions will continue to be dominated by global giants including GE <GE.N>, Danaher <DHR.N>, ITT <ITT.N> and Siemens <SIEGn.DE>.

GE’s objective is to grow revenues by 8 percent every year “and we will definitely be north of that,” said Earl Jones, general manager of GE’s water and process technologies.

Dow Chemical <DOW.N> saw revenues from its water solutions group reach $450 million last year, more than double water revenues five years earlier. Dow also bought a Chinese engineering company, Zhejiang Omex Environmental Engineering Co., last summer in an acquisition aimed at water technology.


Agriculture and industry now account for roughly 80 percent of all water use, with the rest consumed by households.

But as industries and agriculture expand, the fight for and cost of water is likely to escalate, with pressure points seen rising in Asia, Australia and the Middle East, experts say.

Even in the United States, traditionally the world’s top food producer and exporter, is caught in the squeeze.

U.S. plans to cut dependence on foreign oil by switching to “green” fuels has ignited an industrial boom in the Midwest as ethanol and soy diesel plants spring up. But biofuel production consumes a huge amount of water, as do crops.

U.S. fresh water supplies are also shrinking.

The Ogallala, one of the largest underground U.S. aquifers, which runs from Nebraska to Texas, has seen water levels drop up to 30 feet in some spots in the last 10 years. A five-year old drought in the Corn Belt there also hasn’t helped.

Water levels in the U.S. Great Lakes, one of the largest pools of fresh water on the planet, are also dropping.

“It’s the most rapidly challenged critical resource in the world. It’s now almost a cliche: the 20th century was the century of oil and the 21st century will be the century of water,” said Henry Henderson of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.