Water crises and water shortages are increasing around the world- at this point there are 1.2 billion people in 40 countries without reliable access to clean water. But what if there were a way to use the sun to turn oceans into drinking water? IBM and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), the national research and development organization in Saudi Arabia, announced this week that they are collaborating on research to create a solar-powered desalination plant. The project combines two technologies that IBM and KACST have been working on: ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic (UHCPV) technology and energy-efficient filtration through nanotechnology.
“Our collaborative research with KACST has led to innovative technologies in the areas of solar power and of water desalination. Using these new technologies, we will create energy-efficient systems we believe can be implemented across Saudi Arabia and around the world.” — Sharon Nunes, VP at IBM Big Green Innovations
Two major issues with desalination have been the high amount of energy required and the tendency of reverse osmosis (the most popular desalination method) to clog and degrade filters with chlorine and other toxins. IBM and KACST are partnering to build a plant in Al Khafji that will use ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic (UHCPV) technology that reappropriates IBM’s microprocessor cooling technology to bring down the cost of photovoltaics.
The most popular desalination method is reverse osmosis, but there are recurring issues with the membranes used as they are broken down by chlorine and “fouled” by organic and biological molecules and particles. In true problem-solving fashion, researchers in the partnership developed membranes that are resistant to chlorine and fouling.
In the end, the solar-desalination plant aims to have a 30,000 cubic meter/day capacity.
This IBMLabs video gives a good overview of the proejct, though it does leave you wondering why a company that can manipulate invisible, multi-syllabic elements to make a river run in the desert produces videos that may get a D+ in a high school video class:
An article about the project on IBM’s A Smarter Planet begins with this sentence:
“The notion that science can produce rivers in the desert was once preposterous–but it’s no longer a crazy idea.” Of course, the idea that we can turn saltwater into freshwater is enticing- right now less than 3% of the world’s water is freshwater and the other 97+% is saltwater.
Creating a cost-effective, efficient and safe way to create freshwater out of saltwater would dramatically change the landscape of our water issues. But it brings up questions of environmental ethics as well- will our removal of saltwater change anything about the ocean? Will it create a new set of issues we can’t foresee?