News Feature | April 1, 2014

Could Solar Desalination Solve The California Drought?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


A company in drought-plagued California claims it has found a cost-effective method of seawater desalination. 

Sonoma County-based WaterFX says it is "cleaning up salty water using a modular system with solar thermal energy to recover water from a variety of sources for any use," according to an editorial in the Huffington Post

The company is financed "by the Panoche Water District with state funds," the New York Times reported, citing the company. "The $1 million solar thermal desalinization plant is removing impurities from drainage water at half the cost of traditional desalinization."

How promising is the technology? It "proves commercially viable — a larger plant is to be built this year — it could offer some relief to the West’s long-running water wars," the Times said. 

What does it mean that WaterFX employs a "modular solar thermal system?" This method employs "the sun's energy to heat up mineral oil, which generates heat to power a pump. It boils the source water and collects its steam, that steam is the highest quality purified water," the Post piece said.  

The salts extracted during the process become a commodity. The system collects salts and sells them for use in metals and fertilizer, the article said. 

"We don't see salts as 'waste,' but rather a resource," said Aaron Mandell, an environmental engineer and the founder of WaterFX

This method has been tried before, a blog post on The Green Optimist explained

"In Saudi Arabia, the plans to construct such solar powered desalination plant have been discussed for quite some time now. The main benefit of such technology there would be that currently, per day, the country uses as much as 300,000 barrels of crude oil only to extract fresh water from the sea," the piece said.  

Mandell, discussed the origins of his company in the Huffington Post

"When I was first introduced to the water crisis in California, I was blown away by the scope and magnitude of the problem. Having been involved with other venture-backed energy startups, my first reaction was how is it possible no one is focused on this tremendous opportunity?" he said. 

He said the decline in water infrastructure alerted him that water could be a business opportunity. 

"We're talking about billions of dollars of water at stake serving millions of people and businesses across the state - resting entirely on declining infrastructure built in the 60's. A lot has changed since then, especially as it relates to climate change and our scarce natural resources, so it was very logical to look at what we could do to create a better water delivery system," he said. 

For more, check out Water Online’s Desalination Page.

Image credit: "California Coastline," peptic_ulcer © 2011, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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