I’ve been in Las Vegas this week for an American Membrane Technology Association desalination conference. I’ll leave today for home haunts in Mclean, VA.

Flying in on Monday from the east coast the old desert valleys of western Utah and Nevada look like old dead lakes. Come to think of it — they are old dead lakes. Except there’s a blue tangle of finger lakes among the carved brown mountains to the south. These mark Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Man made lakes. Both are now half full.

There was a legislative breakfast on Wednesday morning. On the panel for the breakfast were Mike Connor, Counsel to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Mike Gabaldon Director of Policy for the US Bureau of Reclamation and Mike Deane, Senior Policy Advisor for the EPA Office of Water. During the question period I went up to the audience mike and mentioned the experience of flying into Vegas — and seeing the man made lakes to the south. I said, “the man made lakes are great tributes to the vision and ambition of the generation of water men that produced them. Still those dams come at the end of a great period of technological innovation from +-1920-1930. As mentioned previously [at the breakfast], we are entering a simliar period of very fast innovation today. What grand vision today could we look forward to that would scale to the size of the vision of the great water men that produced such wonders as the Hoover dam back in the 1930’s.”

The question didn’t quite compute. Its hard to associate membranes and dams. I had some discussions afterwwards. People are mostly focused on the problems. The lakes are half full and people are still streaming into the southwest. Membrane development has been incremental for the last 30 years. Costs have come down but slowly and measured over decades and not, say, 18 month cycles like computer chips and more recently– photovoltaics. To do big water stuff requires money. The opinion of the conference generally was that there won’t be big money for desalination R&D until the lakes run dry. Then, after everyone has had their come-to-Jesus… moment–and the usual heads role–then there’ll be big money for desalination R&D.

Its better, of course, to focus on the opportunity rather than on the problems. That way, solutions come in a timely way. A stitch in time saves nine. A constant theme of this blog for the last year–based on publicly available information– has been that the research tools available today make it possible to collapse the cost of water desalination & transport by a factor of 10. Desalination & transport costs of 1/10th current costs– will make it economically possible to turn the deserts green, increase the habitable size of the USA by 1/3 and ultimately double the size of the habitable earth. With the right funding this research goal can be achieved in 10 years or less. 7-10 years from now instead of big coastal water desalination plants there would be pipes people stuck in the ocean that used the water itself as fuel to pump fresh water out and pumped it 1000 miles inland for costs comparable to east coast water. And the USA desalination tech would provide the template for desalination worldwide for the 21st century just as the Hoover Dam provided the template for the 20th century dam building worldwide.

I think that vision scales properly to the size of the vision of the 1930’s water men.

But is it doable? Consider. Newt Gingrich, a historian & a knowlegable washington establishment figure — has said repeatedly over the last year or two that there will be 4-7 times as much scientific change in the next 25 years as there was in the previous 25. According to Mr. Gingrich:

I used to say 4 times as much and then I gave a talk to the National Academy of Science’s working group on Computation and Information. And afterwards the Chairman said to me, “4 times isn’t big enough, it’s got to be at least 7.”

And where did the Chairman’s confidence come from? Actually, the federal government itself. The federal government is funding the research to enable super computers 10 years from now — to be 1000 times faster than today’s super computers–which are in turn 1000 times faster than super computers 10 years ago. It is not just the hardware. The software is moving to the point where it is now possible to model any kind of material you can imagine.–say a material that allows fresh water — but not salt in solution — to pass through a membrane at room temperature and pressure. Or maybe a cheap catalyst that seperates H2 from O at room temperature and pressure. Or maybe a catalyst in whose presence –salt simply settled out of solution. Or say a substance that easily/harmlessly binds to salt in solution to make a substance that’s profitable to sell or –whatever the designer wants. Same goes for pipes and pumps.

Finally, it bears mentioning that computers for the first time have given mathematicians an ever more powerful tool. The consequence is that we have entered a golden age for math— which presages ever more powerful tools.

Last year, I blogged about Mihail Roco, senior advisor for the nanotechnology to the National Science Foundation and a key architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. He penned a piece in the Scientific American. The article gives a roadmap for nano technology — which also provides a good context for projecting the future of desalination research. Mr. Roco discusses the stages of nano technology R&D.

The second stage, which began in 2005, focuses on active nanostructures that change their size, shape, conductivity or other properties during use. New drug-delivery particles could release therapeutic molecules in the body only after they reached their targeted diseased tissues. Electronic components such as transistors and amplifiers with adaptive functions could be reduced to single, complex molecules.

Starting around 2010, workers will cultivate expertise with systems of nanostructures, directing large numbers of intricate components to specified ends. One application could involve the guided self-assembly of nanoelectronic components into three-dimensional circuits and whole devices. Medicine could employ such systems to improve the tissue compatibility of implants, or to create scaffolds for tissue regeneration, or perhaps even to build artificial organs.

Notice Mr Roco didn’t say anything about membranes or cataylsts or anything desalination related? Why not? Mr Rocco was talking about where current funding is going. The federal government is already spending billions annually on nanotechnology to build the next generation industrial base for the USA. The key here to understand is that the tools are available to do the work and the scientists are eager for a big challenge. But they need direction and money.

Well we’ve talked about the vision thing.

That leaves money.

How much?

The australians looked at american research and decided it was worthwhile to invest 250 million over 7 years in water desalination research. Since the Australian GNP & Govenment budget is roughly 1/12 the size of the USA — a round number for a simliar USA project would be roughly 3 billion over 7 years. The Australians are looking to cut desalination costs in half in seven years–but they don’t have the big research labs and money that are available in the USA.

The model for the research program might be the original bureau of Reclamation membrane project that spent 1.4 billion in 2000 dollars over 30 years from the 1950’s-80’s. The model for the research project might also look something like the human genome project back in 1990. That project was funded for 3 billion dollars over 15 years. It took a bit over 10 to complete because of technological advancements and private sector tie ins.

For biotechnology –private sector tie ins came from Ventor Associates. In materials research it might come from IBM. As I posted in May, IBM has jumped into water production & distribution–as they see big research yields within five years. They currently have a web page that states: (click on Micromanaging the Future)

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.

Typically companies are much more willing to do basic & applied research if the federal government chips in half the funding. Its not just the money that moves private companies to fund their research departments. Its also the federal government leadership/imprimatur. (I give a more complete list of innovative funding techniques in this blog desalination VS bulk water transfer.)

IBM as well as other companies like GE would be good partners especially for investing in applied research to develop scalable (economical) processes for producing membranes that use nanotubes or other useful nanomaterials for desalination.

IBM will likely provide plenty of patent protection for their own work. But elsewhere the story may be different. imho any funding authority for research should come with some provision/money/help for deep patent protection for American Scientists–including filing patents overseas. The number of patents filed worldwide annually is going up by leaps and bounds. But most of the patents are derivitive. They link back to American patents–especially in the far East. The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese have learned to game the US patent system–with interlocking small patents. So its not unusual for the fruits of basic American research to go to foreign companies. This was especially the case for US membrane research from the 1950’s-80’s. That said, many unrelated US industries benefitted from US membrane research. The benefits of learning to specify and synthesize membranes, catalysts, pipelines and what have you — on the fly … will be orders of magnitude greater.

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