The Washington Post has an interesting article on new sources of energy coming on stream. Among them is a buoy system. As you read the article below consider Pete Dominici’s line about how you need water for to produce energy and you need energy to produce water. For example, you might use an installed buoy system to pump water ashore. I would wonder however if it wouldn’t be cheaper to drill a pipe like an oil derrick — drilling from shore first down and then laterally sloping up so water flowed downward toward shore. Then you might devise a pipe that got slightly smaller as it came to shore to increase the pressure of the water. There might be as well some way to corrugate the inner walls of the pipe with a pattern of hydrophobic and hydrophilic material such that water would be “encouraged” to flow in a particular direction. Finally, the pipe might come up out of the sea floor 200+ feet off the bottom and end in a mushroom shape. Seven years from now the membrane would be so good it would pass only fresh water through on the underside of the underwater mushroom at ocean pressure without fouling. So the force of the water falling down the stem of the mushroom and then the slope, slimming and hydrophobic/hydrophillic pattern of the pipe moving water toward shore would generate enough pressure to bring the water to the surface on shore under pressure.

In short you wouldn’t need the expensive buoy system to pump water ashore. The water would go passively–perhaps requiring less maintenance. That said, here’s the article and some cool graphics.

Beyond Wind and Solar, a New Generation of Clean Energy

By Juliet Eilperin

Washington Post Staff Writer
(Article Link Here) Saturday, September 1, 2007; A01 (Graphics Link Here)

SOURCE: Finavera | GRAPHIC: By Seth Hamblin and Todd Lindeman, The Washington Post – September 01, 2007

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Iron Works has the feel of a World War II-era shipyard, with sparks flying from welders’ torches and massive hydraulic presses flattening large sheets of metal. But this factory floor represents the cutting edge of American renewable-energy technology.

The plant is assembling a test buoy for Finavera Renewables, a Canadian company that hopes to harness ocean waves off the coast of Oregon to produce electricity for U.S. consumers. And Finavera is not Iron Works’ only alternative-energy client: So many companies have approached it with ideas that it has created a “renewable-energy projects manager” to oversee them.

“In the last year, it’s just exploded with ideas out there,” said Vice President Chandra Brown. “We like to build these creative new things.”

As policymakers promote alternative energy sources to reduce the United States’ emissions of greenhouse gases and its dependence on foreign oil, entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly inventive about finding novel ways to power the economy.

Beyond solar power and wind, which is America’s most developed renewable-energy sector, a host of companies are exploring a variety of more obscure technologies. Researchers are trying to come up with ways to turn algae into diesel fuel. In landfills, startups are attempting to wring energy out of waste such as leaves, tires and “car fluff” from junked automobiles.

This push for lesser-known renewables — which also includes geothermal, solar thermal and tidal energy — may someday help ease the country’s transition to a society less reliant on carbon-based fuels. But many of these technologies are in their infancy, and it remains to be seen whether they can move to the marketplace and come close to meeting the country’s total energy needs.

Some technologies are more advanced, though still small in the nation’s overall energy mix. Nevada boasts 15 geothermal plants, with the capacity to generate enough electricity for 73,000 homes. California utilities are looking at solar technology that would use mirrors to heat water and spin turbines in desert power plants.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), whose Bainbridge Island home overlooks Puget Sound, said that after being thrashed around by the ocean as he kayaked near his house, he became convinced that efforts such as Finavera’s could succeed.

“There’s just such an enormous power out there,” Inslee said, noting that there is nearly 900 times as much energy in a cubic meter of moving water as in a cubic meter of air. “I was wondering how we could capture that.”

Finavera’s chief executive, Jason Bak, believes he knows how. The equipment his company designed, called AquaBuOY, aims to generate electricity from the vertical motion of waves. The buoy, anchored in an array two to three miles offshore, will convert the waves’ motion into pressurized water using large, reinforced-rubber hose pumps. As the buoy goes up the peak of a wave and down into its trough, it forces a piston in the bottom of the buoy to stretch and contract the hose pumps, pushing water through. This drives a turbine that powers a generator producing electricity, which would be shipped to shore through an undersea transmission line.

“This is the new source of power,” Bak said. “It’s the highest-energy-density renewable out there. Wind is like light crude oil, and water is like gasoline.”

In many cases, Americans are working with overseas experts who have more experience developing renewable energy. This month, Iceland America Energy — a partnership between Icelandic and U.S. entrepreneurs — will start drilling just west of California’s Salton Sea to build a geothermal power plant to supply Pacific Gas and Electric with 49 megawatts of electricity by 2010.

Magn?s J?hannesson, Iceland America’s chief executive, said the facility will pump naturally heated water from underground, run it through turbines to generate electricity and re-inject it into the earth, “making it a renewable, giant battery that can run for 20, 30, 50 years.”

Iceland America has several other U.S. geothermal projects in the works, including a potential second Salton Sea plant that would serve Los Angeles and a home-heating plant for the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

“There’s huge potential for geothermal energy in this country, especially on the West Coast,” J?hannesson said.

It is hard to predict what portion of the country’s needs could be met by these emerging technologies. The United States is already the world’s largest producer of geothermal electricity, with 212 plants generating 3,119 megawatts. A panel convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded in a recent report that by 2050, geothermal plants could produce 100 gigawatts, which would be equivalent to 10 percent of current U.S. electricity capacity.

“That level would make it comparable to the current capacity of all our nuclear power plants or all our hydroelectric plants,” wrote the panel’s chair, MIT chemical engineering professor Jefferson W. Tester, in an e-mail.

A 2005 report by the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry consortium, said there is “significant” wave energy potential along America’s coasts, predicting that it, too, could eventually generate as much electricity as the entire hydropower sector.

Both the Bush administration and Congress are promoting renewable energy through a mix of federal largesse and mandates.

Last month the House passed, as part of its energy bill, a requirement that by 2020, renewable energy must account for at least 15 percent of private utilities’ energy supply, and authorized $50 million for marine energy research over the next five years.

Over the next two years, the Energy Department will offer up to $13 billion in loan guarantees for energy ventures that “avoid, reduce or sequester air pollutants and greenhouse gases,” said department spokeswoman Julie Ruggiero, “to make new and emerging clean-energy technologies cost-competitive with traditional sources of energy.”

Still, it will be years before many of these projects will come on line. Oregon Iron Works is nearly done constructing the AquaBuOY prototype, which will be 72 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, and Finavera hopes to install it off the Oregon coast as early as next week. After testing the technology and applying for the necessary federal permits, Finavera officials hope that by 2010 or 2011 they can operate two wave parks — one off Bandon, Ore., and another off Trinidad, Calif. — that would each span two to three square miles and produce 100 megawatts, enough for 35,000 homes. They plan to start up another wave-power operation in British Columbia around the same time.

Operating equipment in the hostile environment of the ocean poses challenges, however. Josh Pruzek, who oversees government contracts as military marine manager at Oregon Iron Works, said the company uses high-grade steel that is less vulnerable to corrosion, and designs parts to be easily maintained.

The power of moving water can also overwhelm high-tech equipment. In December, Verdant Power placed turbines off New York City‘s Roosevelt Island amid much fanfare, promising to harness the tides of the East River and convert that energy into electricity. By last month, all six of the turbines, battered by the current’s strength, had been shut down. The company is repairing and redesigning its equipment.

Still, such projects are popular with politicians across the nation, from New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D), who is hoping to make his state a breeding ground for renewable-energy projects. David Van’t Hof, Kulongoski’s sustainability policy adviser, said government officials are exploring ideas, from solar projects on the eastern side of the state to biomass energy culled from Oregon’s forests, in an effort to generate 25 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2025.

“Wind’s going to continue to be the king, both in Oregon and the nation, for the next five years,” Van’t Hof said, but that will last only for so long. “People are already asking, ‘What’s next after wind?’ ”

Staff writer Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.

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.

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.

The nanostructures below from Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM), in conjunction with researchers at Case Western Reserve and Princeton Universities–may some day have some applicability to water desalination. I’m going to be at the membrane conference in Las Vegas next week 7/23-7/27. I’ll ask around about it.

Self-assembled nanostructures function better than bone as porosity increases

On the left is a TEM micrograph of a porous cube-like nanostructure. On the right is a blow-up of the silica framework (the dark 2-nm thick regions on the left side figure) based on modeling. The highlighted structures represent the small rings refer ...

On the left is a TEM micrograph of a porous, cube-like nanostructure. On the right is a blow-up of the silica framework (the dark <2-nm thick regions on the left side figure) based on modeling. The highlighted structures represent the small rings referred to in the story. Credit: Sandia National Laboratory

Naturally occurring structures like birds’ bones or tree trunks are thought to have evolved over eons to reach the best possible balance between stiffness and density.

But in a June paper in Nature Materials, researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM), in conjunction with researchers at Case Western Reserve and Princeton Universities, show that nanoscale materials self-assembled in artificially determined patterns can improve upon nature’s designs.

“Using self-assembly we can construct silica materials at a finer scale than those found in nature,” says principal investigator Jeff Brinker. “Because, at very small dimensions, the structure and mechanical properties of the materials change, facile fabrication of stiff, porous materials needed for microelectronics and membrane applications may be possible.”

Nuclear magnetic resonance and Raman spectroscopic studies performed by Sandia researchers Roger Assink (ret.) and Dave Tallant, along with molecular modeling studies performed by Dan Lacks at Case Western Reserve University, showed that, as the ordered porous films became more porous, the silica pore walls thinned below 2 nm, re-arranging the silica framework to become denser and stiffer.

Whereas the stiffness of evolved optimized bone declines proportional to the square of its density, mechanical studies performed by Sandia researcher Thomas Buchheit working with UNM student Christopher Hartshorn showed that the stiffness/modulus of self-assembled materials was much less sensitive to increasing porosity: For a material synthesized with a cubic arrangement of pores, the modulus declined only as the square root of its density.

The silica nanostructures — basically a synthetic analogue of bone-like cellular structures, replicated at the nanoscale using silica compounds — thus may improve performance where increased pore volume is important. These include modern thin-film applications such as membrane barriers, molecular recognition sensors, and low-dielectric-constant insulators needed for future generation of microelectronic devices.

“Bone, closely examined, is a structured cellular material,” says Brinker, a Sandia Fellow and chemical engineering professor at UNM. “Because, using self-assembly, we had demonstrated the fabrication of a variety of ordered cellular materials at the nanoscale with worm-like (curving cylinders), hexagonal (soda straw packing) and cubic sphere arrangements of pores, we wondered whether the modulus-density scaling relationships of these nanoscale materials would be similar to the optimized evolved materials [like bone]. We found that both material structure and pore sizes matter. At all densities we observed that the cubic arrangement was stiffer than the hexagonal arrangement, which was stiffer than the worm-like. For each of these structures, increasing porosity caused a reduction in modulus, but the reduction was less than for theoretically optimized or naturally evolved materials due to the attendant stiffening of the thinning nanoscale silica walls resulting from the formation of small stiff silica rings.

“This change in ring structure only happens at the nanoscale,” says Brinker.

Sandia researcher Hongyou Fan created cubic, cylindrical, and worm-like (or disordered) pores to evaluate differences in stiffness resulting from these differently shaped internal spaces.

Other paper authors include Dave Kissel of UNM, Regina Simpson at Sandia, and Salvatore Torquato of Princeton.

Source: Sandia National Laboratory

water from air

29th June 2007

Back in 2001 the first reports came out on an african desert beetle that gathered water in its wings from the air.

Nature/Oxford Univ/QinetiQ The beetle thrives in one of the driest places on Earth.

Last year some MIT scientists copied the structure of a beetle’s wings to make surfaces with hydrophilic/superhydrophobic patterning.

This year some Aussie’s developed a water from air collector. Once you look through the article article below, check out the follow up article–as well as the work of the MIT scientists mentioned above. There might be a way to significantly enhance the Australians work.

Now for my next trick, water from air

Discovery News

Monday, 25 June 2007

spider's web

Leaves and spiders’ webs beaded with dew have inspired a low-tech solution for collecting fresh water.

WatAir, an inverted pyramid made from elastic canvas, recycled polycarbonate, metal or glass, can reap dozens of litres of water a day from the air.

The inexpensive solution could help bring clean drinking water to people in remote or polluted areas, its developers say.

“The design has minimal special demands. It is low-tech and low-cost, and in fact can be even produced with local means,” says Joseph Cory, a PhD candidate at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and an architect at Haifa’s Geotectura Studio.

Cory and colleague Eyal Malka of Malka Architects recently won first place for the invention in a competition sponsored by WaterAid, an international nonprofit organisation dedicated to providing safe domestic water to poor nations, and Arup, a UK-based firm specialising in sustainable designs.

Cory and Malka were inspired by the passive way dew gathers on leaves, spiders’ webs, even on sleeping bags and tents.

They designed a four-sided structure shaped like an inverted pyramid, with each panel about 3 metres tall.

At night, dew drops bead up on both the tops and undersides of the panels. Because the dew collecting on top may contain dust, dirt or insects, that water could be used for irrigation. But dew from the underside is drinkable.

Gravity draws the drops downward into tanks, wells or bottles at the bottom.

A 96 square metre structure can extract a minimum of 48 litres of fresh water daily. But the dimensions can vary, says Cory, from a small personal unit that fills a water glass to several large-scale units that provide water for a community.

The low-tech approach requires only low-cost materials and is quick and easy to deploy, says Cory.

Upturned pyramid

WatAir can be built locally but is durable enough to be dropped by parachute from a plane.

The cost could be offset by printing sponsor logos or advertisements onto the canvas sheets.

“It is simple, practical, adaptable, sustainable, flexible and draws inspiration from nature resulting in a minimal intervention with potentially a big impact,” says Frank Lawson, a senior engineer at Arup.

Cory and Malka are also looking into modifications to WatAir that could help produce energy.

They are investigating embedding photovoltaic cells into the canvas to convert sunlight into electricity.

The energy could be used to power electrical appliances or charge batteries. Or it could be used to cool the surface of the dew panels, which would allow the structure to produce water all day long.


Now consider the article below: Scientists at Ohio State have developed a kind of nano fiber that can attract or repel water. This fiber might be further enhance the device above. I’m sure the drawback here is that these fibers are much more expensive than the Aussie materials.

New, invisible nano-fibers conduct electricity, repel dirt

A scanning electron microscope image of plastic fibers grown on a sheet of transparent film. Ohio State University researchers have invented a technique for carpeting a surface with tiny plastic fibers. The fibers can be made to attract or repel wate ...

A scanning electron microscope image of plastic fibers grown on a sheet of transparent film. Ohio State University researchers have invented a technique for carpeting a surface with tiny plastic fibers. The fibers can be made to attract or repel water and oil. Credit: Image courtesy of Ohio State University

Tiny plastic fibers could be the key to some diverse technologies in the future — including self-cleaning surfaces, transparent electronics, and biomedical tools that manipulate strands of DNA.

In the June issue of the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Ohio State University researchers describe how they created surfaces that, seen with the eye, look as flat and transparent as a sheet of glass. But seen up close, the surfaces are actually carpeted with tiny fibers.

The patent-pending technology involves a method for growing a bed of fibers of a specific length, and using chemical treatments to tailor the fibers’ properties, explained Arthur J. Epstein, Distinguished University Professor of chemistry and physics and director of the university’s Institute for Magnetic and Electronic Polymers.

“One of the good things about working with these polymers is that you’re able to structure them in many different ways,” Epstein said. “Plus, we found that we can coat almost any surface with these fibers.”

For this study, the scientists grew fibers of different heights and diameters, and were able to modify the fibers’ molecular structures by exposing them to different chemicals.

They devised one treatment that made the fibers attract water, and another that made the fibers repel water. They found they could also make the surfaces attract or repel oil. Depending on what polymer they start with, the fibers can also be made to conduct electricity.

The ability to tailor the properties of the fibers opens the surface to many different applications, he said.

Since dirt, water, and oil don’t stick to the repellant fibers, windows coated with them would stay cleaner longer.

In contrast, the attracting fibers would make a good anti-fog coating, because they pull at water droplets and cause them to spread out flat on the surface.

They devised one treatment that made the fibers attract water, and another that made the fibers repel water. They found they could also make the surfaces attract or repel oil. Depending on what polymer they start with, the fibers can also be made to conduct electricity.

What’s more, researchers found that the attracting surface does the same thing to coiled-up strands of DNA. When they put droplets of water containing DNA on the fibers, the strands uncoiled and hung suspended from the fibers like clotheslines.

Epstein said scientists could use the fibers as a platform to study how DNA interacts with other molecules. They could also use the spread-out DNA to build new nanostructures.

“We’re very excited about where this kind of development can take us,” he added.

Epstein’s research centers on polymers that conduct electricity, and light up or change color. Depending on the choice of polymer, the nano-fiber surface can also conduct electricity. The researchers were able to use the surface to charge an organic light-emitting device — a find that could pave the way for transparent plastic electronics.

Finally, they also showed that the fibers could be used to control the flow of water in microfluidic devices — a specialty of study co-author L. James Lee, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and head of Ohio State’s Center for Affordable Nanoengineering of Polymeric Biomedical Devices.

Lee and Epstein are advisors to former graduate student Nan-Rong Chiou, who developed the technology to earn his doctorate. He is now a visiting scholar at the university. Other co-authors on the paper included former doctoral students Chunmeng Lu and Jingjiao Guan.

The technology is a merger of two different chemical processes for growing polymer molecules: one grows tiny dots of polymer “seeds” on a flat surface, and the other grows vertical fibers out from the top of the seeds. The fibers grow until the scientists cut off the chemical reaction, forming a carpet of uniform height.

The university will license the technology, and Epstein and his colleagues are looking for new applications for it.

Aside from anti-fog windows, self-cleaning windows, and organic LEDs, Chiou said that he foresees the surfaces working in glucose sensors, gene therapy devices, artificial muscles, field emission displays, and electromagnetic interference shielding.

A drop of water balances perfectly on a plastic surface invented by researchers at Ohio State University. The surface is covered with microscopic fibers, and can be made to attract or repel water. The surface shown here is water repellant, so the drop can’t spread out along the surface; instead, it retains its spherical shape. Credit: Photo by Jo McCulty, courtesy of Ohio State University

Source: Ohio State University


The National Research Council’s (NRC) Water Science and Technology Board has undertaken a — Department of the Interior and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation  — sponsored study on advancing desalination technology. They want to know how fast research is moving–ie how fast research will result in desal costs coming down. How much money to spend to make it happen. Where to allocate funds in the most promising research fields. How desalination compares to bulk water transfers. etc. Its been ongoing for about a year. It should be completed  by  year end. The last meeting is 08/08/2007.

If you want to participate and you don’t have private access –they will have some meetings open to the public. I’m thinking of going myself. But it would be better to have people who were closer to  the research — throw in their two cents. And of course, for  those whose research is dependent on federal  dollars — Woods Hole, Mass August 8 — would be a good place to be. Come to think of it… Woods Hole has been a famous destination in years past for science people. So be there or be square.

Below is the only PR I’ve seen on this.

Clarkson University

June 13, 2007 .] Article Photo

Clarkson University Professor and Associate Dean of Engineering Amy K. Zander is the chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Advancing Desalination Technology.

The National Research Council’s (NRC) Water Science and Technology Board has undertaken a study on advancing desalination technology. Zander’s committee is conducting a study that will produce recommendations to federal, state, and local governmental and private entities concerned with advancing desalination.

The committee will study the potential for both seawater and inland brackish water desalination to help meet anticipated water supply needs in the United States, assess the current state-of-the-science in desalination and recommend long-term goals for advancing desalination technology. Following up on an NRC recommendation calling for the development of a national research agenda, the committee will determine what research is needed to reach the long-term goals for advancing desalination and what technical barriers should be resolved with existing technologies.

The committee will also examine the practical aspects of implementation, like economics, financing, regulatory, institutional, public acceptance, and consider how much research funding is needed to significantly advance the field of desalination technology and the appropriate roles for governmental and non-governmental entities, including the private sector.

The study, sponsored by the Department of the Interior and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, should be completed by the end of the year.

Zander has been a faculty member in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Clarkson since 1991. She was promoted to associate professor in 1997 and was named full professor in 2003. She has been the associate dean for Academic Programs in the Wallace H. Coulter School of Engineering since 2005.

Her research interests are in the areas of physical and chemical separations in environmental systems, especially drinking water and wastewater treatment technologies. Her work involves finding new solutions for safe drinking water and for minimal impact of water and wastewater treatment systems on the natural environment. She specializes in membrane processes — both pressure-driven and concentration-driven — in environmental processes.

Zander has published dozens of journal articles, written and co-written numerous book chapters, and delivered papers at some 50 professional and academic conferences throughout North America. She has managed research projects totaling over $800, 000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, and other funding agencies.

Zander has served on two prior committees of the National Academy of Sciences, producing the report Safe Water from Every Tap: Improving Water Service to Small Communities in 1997 and Confronting the Nation’s Water Problems: The Role of Research in 2004.

Her other honors include the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) Distinguished Service Award in 2005; the 2003 Samuel Arnold Greeley Award from the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, a division of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE); the AEESP/McGraw Hill Award for Outstanding Teaching in Environmental Engineering and Science; and Clarkson’s 1999 Distinguished Teaching Award.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is an honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. The NAS was signed into being by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. As mandated in its Act of Incorporation, the NAS has, since then, served to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government.

Clarkson University, located in Potsdam, New York, is a private, nationally ranked university with a reputation for developing innovative leaders in engineering, business, the sciences, health sciences and the humanities. At Clarkson, 3, 000 high-ability students excel in an environment where learning is not only positive, friendly and supportive but spans the boundaries of traditional disciplines and knowledge. Faculty achieves international recognition for their research and scholarship and connects students to their leadership potential in the marketplace through dynamic, real-world problem solving.

Find out more about the study at

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or]

Tunnel Borers

15th June 2007

According to this article there are 20 desalination plants on the drawing boards in California. The costs described by the article look like 1990’s costs. These costs have been more than halved in the last decade or so. A recurring problem suggested by the article is intake structures. See the article below on how the Australians are dealing with intake structures.



I really like the picture below. See how the Australians solve the problem of wee beasties harmed by salt concentrate.


The bore arrives at the desalination plant this morning.The bore arrives at the desalination plant this morning.

Tunnel borers arrive for Tugun desal plant

Tony Moore | May 31, 2007 – 2:30PM

The first of two German-built tunnel boring machines to be used at the Tugun Desalination Plant has arrived at Tugun to begin the tunnel “under the seabed”.

The two laser-guided machines, which utilise GPS technology, will dig the inlet and outlet tunnels for the seawater to be used in Queensland’s first desalination plant.

At Tugun, just to the north of Coolangatta Airport, two 70-metre vertical tunnels have been built to allow the project team to build two horizontal tunnels which extend about 1.5 kilometres out to sea.

Infrastructure Minister Anna Bligh said the Tugun project was on track to provide 125 megalitres of desalinated water by the end of November 2008.

“This project is critical to beating the drought and they (the workers) know it,” she said.

“This tunnel is being (worked on) 24 hours a day. This project is on track to meet its scheduled completion date of November 2008.”

The Queensland Water Commission project reports for April show the project will provide water at “33 per cent capacity” by November 2008, and “water at 100 per cent capacity” by January 15, 2009.

Ms Bligh said the Tugun project had several advantages over desalination projects elsewhere in Australia.

“A great benefit of the Tugun site is that unlike Sydney and other places, this is a marine tunnelling project, having minimal impact on the environment and local communities as the tunnels – which will be 70 metres underground – do not run under any privately-owned land,” she said.

Eleven kilometres of pipeline to connect the desalination plant to the Western Corridor Recycled Wastewater Project have been delivered.

Ms Bligh said the progress at Tugun did not mean the government was still looking at a concept for a desalination plant on Bribie Island.

“The issues in relation to possible other locations for desalination plants are quite complex,” she said.

“Every location has its own challenges. The issue with Bribie Island is that it is located close to a very shallow and important marine ecosystem – and that is Moreton Bay.

“Here at Tugun we can take the water about 1.5 kilometres out to the deep ocean where the brine can be distributed without any damage to the marine environment.

“Moreton Bay is a very sensitive fish and marine habitat. It is much more shallow and we are very, very hesitant about putting a desalination plant into that environment.

“There are no plans on our books for a desalination plant at Bribie Island.”


I mention drilling underwater in passing in an earlier at the end of an awkwardly named blog
California Solar’s Revolutionary Energy Business Model for Desalination Pumps

A study group priced the drilling at 2 million. But the length of the intake tunnels is likely 200 yards rather than 2000 yards as is the case in Australia.

Low Pressure Desalination

08th June 2007

If you read last weeks blog Saltwater into Fire any time between last Friday and Tuesday–you’ll want to check back. I have been pretty steadily updating it. Now it appears that unlike electrolysis –which is net negative for energy output–low energy RF is net positive for energy output. imho that’s cool. (uh, well, actually, world beating.) However, the secret sauce that makes this work imho is even cooler. I think you’ll find this to be interesting too. Check it out.

Things can and do move quickly. In January I blogged about low pressure desalination. The blog discussed the research results of some Florida scientists. Now six month later the first prototypes based on that work have come out. (When you finish this article you might ask yourself why not burn saltwater & use it as a heat source. well why not? … It might be too hot)

Eye on Research: Researchers develop low-cost, low-energy desalination process
Sun News Report
Las Cruces Sun-News
Article Launched:05/27/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT
NMSU report

A low-cost water desalination system developed by New Mexico State University engineers can convert saltwater to pure drinking water on a round-the-clock basis ­ and its energy needs are so low it can be powered by the waste heat of an air conditioning system.

A prototype built on the NMSU campus in Las Cruces can produce enough pure water continuously to supply a four-person household, said Nirmala Khandan, an environmental engineering professor in NMSU’s Department of Civil Engineering.

New Mexico and other parts of the world have extensive brackish groundwater resources that could be tapped and purified to augment limited freshwater supplies, but traditional desalination processes such as reverse osmosis and electrodialysis consume significant amounts of energy.

This research project, funded by the NMSU-based New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, explores the feasibility of using low-grade heat — such as solar energy or waste heat from a process such as refrigeration or air conditioning — to run a desalination process.

Khandan said the project builds on a process, first developed by researchers in Florida, that makes distillation of saline water possible at relatively low temperatures — 113 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit rather than the 140 to 212 F required by most distillation processes.

The system utilizes the natural effects of gravity and atmospheric pressure to create a vacuum in which water can evaporate and condense at near-ambient temperatures. Two 30-foot vertical tubes — one rising from a tank of saline water and the other from a tank of pure water — are connected by a horizontal tube. The barometric pressure of the tall water columns creates a vacuum in the headspace.

At normal temperatures, Khandan said, evaporation from the pure-water side will travel to the saline side and condense as the system seeks equilibrium. “That’s nature,” he said. “We want it to go the other way.”

Raising the temperature of the water in the headspace over the saline column slightly more than that of the freshwater column causes the flow to go in the other direction, so that pure, distilled water collects on one side and the brine concentrate is left behind in a separate container. A temperature increase of only 10 to 15 degrees is needed, Khandan said.

“That’s the trick of this vacuum,” he said. “We don’t have to boil the water like normal distillation, so you can use low-grade heat like solar energy or waste heat from a diesel engine or some other source of waste heat.”

Potentially a desalination system using this method could be coupled to a home’s refrigerated air conditioning system, Khandan said.

“When you air condition a house, you are pumping the heat outside the house, and the heat is wasted into the atmosphere,” he said. “We want to capture that heat and use it to power this desalination system.”

The 30-foot-tall NMSU prototype is powered by a solar panel. Khandan and his research assistant, civil engineering doctoral student Veera Gnaneswar Gude, have modified the process originally developed by Florida researchers to incorporate a thermal energy storage device that allows the system to operate around-the-clock, using stored energy at night. The Institute of Energy and Environment housed in the NMSU College of Engineering helped them instrument the system.

Their research on the system’s capabilities has been presented at national and international conferences and their research continues.

As with any desalination process, the system leaves behind a brine concentrate that must be disposed of, and some potential users may be put off by the unit’s height, “but this technology could go to commercial scale pretty quickly,” Khandan said. “The overall cost of desalination by this process can be very competitive.”

The project is one of many research initiatives at NMSU aimed at addressing the critical needs of New Mexico and the nation.

“Eye on Research” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Karl Hill of University Communications.

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