Plenty of Clean Water at the NanoFrontier

The Audio Podcast features Eric Hoen and his engineering research team at UCLA whose work promises to cut the need for energy in RO in half in two years or so. I’ve mentioned Eric’s work in two previous posts: 1.) 2.) Eric’s accomplishment is about what the Australians want to do in seven years for their $250 million. Remember the goal of a seven year USA effort would be closer to the work of the LLNL team. That said, Eric’s discussion gives an intermediate term view of membrane research. He also shows one way to move from basic research to applied research as he shifts his work over to a company that can commercialize his work. He also gives an overview of a more decentralized water piping system similar to that mentioned by IBM.

Consider this Craig Ventor piece about the new treasure trove of bacteria dna/proteins brought in by Craig Venter’s Institute. Science critics are hailing his work as the biggest deal in ocean going genetics since the Beagle voyages of Charles Darwin.

How would this effect desalination research? It would be helpful if someone in the desalination community tasked the Craig Ventor Institute to keep an eye out for proteins/membranes that do desalination work.

Great. So you get some desalination proteins or membranes. How do you make them into something useful? There are two approaches to this.

In the first approach you find a gene that does desalination in bacteria and you insert it into some bacteria or a blue green algae that doubles in number every few hours and somehow harvest the fresh water from the bodies of the bugs. Something similar to this is currently being done to produce biodiesel.

imho this just looks like an expensive way to produce water in bulk. The better use for sea bacteria would be to find ones that do desalination really well and use them as the basis for mathematical models for materials research for second & third generation membranes that adapt to changes in salinity and chemistry in the water — so as to retain a consistent flow of fresh water through the membrane. Cells do this all the time. Likely too they’ve been doing it since nearly the dawn of time.

This suggests there are simple elegant solutions.

Ok, how would you convert organic membranes into inorganic membranes. Well I think that — after the Ventor institute found a desalination bug whose membranes they liked — then they’d pass it off to a geneticist, a materials research scientist and maybe a mathematician who would — between them –“characterize” the desalination process of membrane in a form that a computer modeler could use to “characterize” the same desalination process with a computer model simulation. With that model you could then ask the program what kind of materials alone or in combination would desalinate water like the membrane of the wee beastie. The program would run millions of simulations. (Hopefully there would be a learning curve in there somewhere–so that future simulations wouldn’t so many interations.)

I blogged in detail last year about current work at San Dia laboratories along these lines.

Then, once you have the material…do a little shake and bake.

If you wanted to accelerate the pace of research –then just increase the number of teams doing simulations on supercomputers around the country. How many? 10 seems like a nice round number. If people wanted to know why such work should be given priority….point to the half full dams in Arizona. This is lake Meade as of Oct 31, 2006. There hasn’t been much rain since then.

Intermediate Term Solutions

07th August 2007

Last week I chatted up what I think should be the central goal, issues, & costs for desalination research.

This week I’d like to discuss some peripheral water purification techniques that I’ve seen crop up in the last year.

The most important secondary project imho is Thermal depolymerization. According to Wickipedia:

Thermal depolymerization (TDP) is a process for the reduction of complex organic materials (usually waste products of various sorts, often known as biomass and plastic) into light crude oil. It mimics the natural geological processes thought to be involved in the production of fossil fuels. Under pressure and heat, long chain polymers of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon decompose into short-chain petroleum hydrocarbons with a maximum length of around 18 carbons.

The process can convert a city’s sewage into diesel fuel for a profit. The waste is water. The process destroys prions. Again according to Wicki…

The process can break down organic poisons, due to breaking chemical bonds and destroying the molecular shape needed for the poison’s activity. It is highly effective at killing pathogens, including prions. It can also safely remove heavy metals from the samples by converting them from their ionized or organometallic forms to their stable oxides which can be safely separated from the other products.

TDP is especially popular in Europe as a means disposing of slaughter house carcasses in a way that kills any chance of mad cow disease spreading.

So the process can convert municipal sewage to oil profitably. (Wiki gives more background here. Last fall I blogged about the matter here.) The byproduct is water. There is a working plant in Missouri and a test plant in Philadelphia. What’s not to like? While the process looks to be profitable at current oil prices–its profitable only in 5 states where tax breaks are given. (And those tax breaks come on top of recent federal tax breaks.) Also, the water is not quite fresh. The process is not quite ready for prime time. But I don’t think the problem is very difficult to overcome. Surely nothing that a little R&D money & a couple bright guys from various industrial backgrounds wouldn’t be able to knock off in a year. Both the DOE and the EPA have kicked in six million apiece to fund the work in years past. Likely similar sums would get the bugs out the current system.

The payoff for a reliable means to turn city sewage into diesel fuel and clean fresh water would be pretty significant.
A smaller niche play would be to use wind power or photo voltaic powered pumps to pull brackish water from places like west Texas. The water would go to specialized green houses that desalinate the water. These could be used to grow fruits and vegetables. If there happened to be brackish water beneath a coal plant — another appropriate way to desalinate the brackish water would be to pump it into a green house that was growing algae for biodiesel. Heck you could have desalination greenhouses growing algae for biodiesal all over the saline aquifers of west texas.

Finally, I think that there should be room made to investigate & move as appropriate– desalination/purification/collection technologies as they appear. For example, in just this last year I’ve seen a technique that pulls water from air— a nice idea for the fog bound parts of the west coast south of San Francisco. As well, within the last year I’ve seen low pressure desalination move from theory to product.

Anyhow, that’s about all I want to do for now.

In the next week or two I’ll talk about pipelines.