PostHeaderIcon 2010 AMTA Conference: Desalination’s Future Has Arrived.

My favorite water power story for 2009 was the discovery of water on the moon.

Moon probe detects water: NASA sends a probe called Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS, crashing into the moon. Weeks later, scientists report that an analysis of the impact debris confirms the existence of “significant” reserves of water ice. This was judged one of the top science stories of the decade.

Water will make it possible to¬† settle the moon –¬† because water provides the basic elements for life:¬† If you split the H2O molecule with sunlight, you get oxygen to breathe and hydrogen for power. H2O of course, is water to drink. With water, oxygen, and sunlight you can grow food. Water is the real stuff of life. (Not the lump of coal below the monkey tree in Avatar.)

But moon water is for the future. How far in the future? Well the Star Trek science fiction takes place about 2250-2290. Avatar –with more primitive technology –is set¬† in 2150. Large scale moon colonization which will require lots of water–may wait until 2050–with early efforts beginning about 2030. The last visit to the moon was in¬† 1972. A trip back to the moon is planned for 2020 or ten years from now. (hmm well bad federal policy/vision has now knocked the USA out of the 2020 moon challenge.)

So what’s the point?

Let’s say that the Hoover dam in Arizona completed in 1936 and the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze in China completed in 2006 –encompass most of the history of monumental dam building. ie the period of monumental dam building is mostly over. The 21st century will require¬† a very different solution. Desalination will likely be that solution. Maybe like monumental dam building– monumental desalination will be the solution de jour for 70 years or so. Then after that water will be mined¬† on the moon, mars and elsewhere.

Moon water provides a surveyor’s plumb line that¬† helps one frame the back end of the future timeline of the next techonolgical water age inferred by the¬† title of the AMTA conference to be held this year (2010) in July.

“Membrane Technology: The Wave of the Future has Arrived”.

I understand that Oasys Water will hold a  parallel conference nearby to promote their forward osmosis technology. It is pretty impressive.

Back in February 2009 Oasys was reporting that their forward osmosis technology would cut  desalination costs in half.

Company officials claim the Engineered Osmosis (EO) process can produce drinking water at less than half the cost of current desalination methods by eliminating the need the for high-pressures used in modern Reverse Osmosis systems, thereby cutting electricity and fuel demands by more than 90%.

By November 2009 Oasys company officials were saying they would be  producing fresh water for 1/10th of RO plant costs.

Because it employs only waste heat and a small amount of electricity for pumping water (unlike with reverse osmosis, the water doesn’t have to be pressurized) Oasys says it can produce fresh water at one-tenth the cost of today’s reverse osmosis plants.

That’s a big leap in just a couple months.

Its reasonable to wonder–even if the reporter is in error–whether Oasys cost savings is a function of the new membranes coming out in 2010. For example, first out the gate in 2010–and one likely to be promoted at AMTA will be NanoH2O. I first mentioned NanoH20 back in 2006. Now it looks like they’ll have a membrane ready in 2010 that will double membrane efficiencies and maybe half the costs of water desalination. According to this August 26, 2009 article linked to at NanoH2O

NanoH20′s Green says the company has modified Hoek’s work substantially to improve and perfect the nanoparticle membrane, but he won’t say how. He says the company is targeting nearly 100[%] improvement in water production, from 6,000 to 7,500 gallons per day per eight-inch area of membrane to 12,000 gallons per day. The membrane will be the same size and shape as current membranes, so plants won’t have to be retrofitted. The company is building enough capacity to produce “tens of thousands” of membranes–a big plant incorporates 10,000 to 20,000. The first membranes will go on sale early next year.

Its been known since late last year that NanoH20 would be going into production in 2010. So its not clear as to whether the promises in February of 2009 by Oasys that their forward osmosis technology would be cutting desalination costs in half — were just a function of them incorporating NanoH20′s membrane–or if their technology itself provided real cost savings.

Which brings us to Oasys November 2009 claim that their technology would desalinate ocean water for 1/10 current RO costs.

How can they make this claim?

There are a couple of possibilities.

First, the reporter may have been in error.

There is a second possibility. Their technology does offer real costs savings/efficiencies but not enough to cut costs to 1/10th current costs. However if you¬† multiplied Oasys efficiencies by the efficiencies provided by the new NanoH2O membranes — then perhaps they can desalinate water somewhere between 1/4 & 1/10 of current RO costs.

There is a third possibility. Oasys can reduce costs to 1/10th current RO costs without help from NanoH2O. I didn’t think this was even possible until I ran across an article about a company called Saltworks Technologies that claims to have a similar process with similar cost savings as Oasys. They too could be blowing smoke. But that makes two groups claiming similar specs and cost savings.¬†¬† So let’s think about it. Might be that their strategy is to employ the infrastructure–including water intake, disposal & waste heat– of a coal/oil/nuclear fired coastal electricity plants.¬† These use a constant supply of water and¬† convert the water to steam to drive their generators. That would knock out much of the capital costs. A lot of their maintenance costs –could be¬† absorbed by the electrical generating facility–except for the membranes. In short, much and perhaps –most — of the the capital and maintenance costs could be absorbed within the context of the power producing plant. Maybe there is some clever accounting gerrymandering. Maybe not.¬† If you assume that energy cost of forward osmosis — are what they say they are–and limited to pumping water around the installation–so that energy costs for desalination could also be gerrymandered into electrical production costs…– Then yeah, maybe these guys have their revolution now.¬† But even with straight forward¬† accounting, the cost savings of converting an electrical power generating plant into a dual use desal/electrical generation plant looks like it could be considerable.

A fourth possibiility is that Oasys is looking ahead a couple years toward a raft of new companies with¬† membranes¬† that promise to cut energy costs to 1/10 those of current membranes.¬† These membranes are so efficient that all you need is¬† the equivalent pressure of 50-100 feet of ocean water to force fresh water through their membranes. (By comparison, today’s membranes require pressures equivalent to those generated by 850-900 feet of ocean water to force fresh water through their membranes.)

Membrane companies that promise these kinds of efficiencies¬† include two carbon nanotube spin offs of LLNL. The first is one company I’ve mentioned before: Porifera.¬† I first mentioned them back in November 2008.¬†They have been in the news recently for having received a LLNL license for carbon nanotube membranes and more government funding.

Another member of the original LLNL carbon nanotube team, Jason Holt, has helped found another  company called NanOasis Technologies. This company has recently received 2 million

DOE funding in the ARPA-E program to develop “Carbon nanotubes for reverse osmosis membranes that require less energy and have many times higher flux. Could dramatically reduce the cost and energy required for desalination to supply fresh water for our crops and communities.”

I have seen a third California company that’s being funded by the DOD & NSF grants: Y Carbon .

In a statement, Ranjan Dash, chief technology officer of Y-Carbon, said that carbon materials enable improved storage of energy, making supercapacitors suitable for use especially in hybrid electric vehicles as well as consumer and mobile devices.

He said that the company’s strength is expected to enhance to a great extent through adopting the supercapacitor, which could revolutionize the energy sector.

The proprietary tunable nanoporous carbon technology of Y-Carbon has been licensed from Drexel University, located in Philadelphia, the United States.

The new technology has application in an array of areas, including supercapacitors, storage of gas, desalination of water, and in medical sorbents.

Four years ago high flux membranes were a scientific novelty. Today the   promise of the technology is so profound that a lot of new players are entering this space. So even if Oasys has over promised, delivery is only delayed by a couple years.

What’s so profound about cheap desalinized water? It was mentioned above. When water is cheap enough –it can be used for agriculture. Since most of the world’s deserts are right beside the ocean– it becomes possible to turn the deserts green and double the size of the habitable earth.

I’m already starting to see sites thinking in these terms.

Forresting the Sahara.

But what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what’s wrong. The first deserts to be greened over should be the Mohave Desert, then maybe the Sonora Desert.

The last AMTA conference I attended was back in July 2007 in Las Vegas.¬† It was¬† a sleepy affair.¬† The AMTA is affiliated with the International Desalination Association. One of their¬† mission statements is technology transfers.¬† There were account reps from a lot of foreign countries there.¬† The tech on display offered incremental efficiency improvements. They gave a pocket watch or some such to the demur inventor of desalination RO membranes.¬† He was a Bureau of Reclamation Scientist working in their labs during the 1960′s and 70′s. Everyone applauded politely.¬† His work provided the IP for a global industry that is mostly foreign owned and operated today. But it took awhile. This time they will have a front row seat on American invention.

It would be very nice if the USA could hold on to its IP this time round so as to build great export companies. This might hold up the value of US dollars held by foreign banks. A recapitalized America will pay for moon water R&D¬† a couple generations hence when prudent men think it best to send some of their kids off to the planets. Or, as will more likely be the case, they will be unable to hold their kids back. Why? Because one day the kids will wake up and smell water on the moon. Where there’s water, there’s life.

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