Guest Column | May 8, 2015

Keeping Innovation Afloat: The Desal Prize

By Chris Holmes, USAID Global Water Coordinator

During the week of April 6th, five teams of engineers, innovators, and water experts convened at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in New Mexico to compete in the Desal Prize. These competitors had seven days to assemble their prototypes — some had even driven across the country, technology-filled trailers in tow — as well as optimize, test, and pitch their innovations to a panel of expert judges. The goal? To demonstrate that they had a successful small-scale desalination system powered solely by cost-effective, renewable energy while creating less brine waste and more water for agriculture and drinking.

The Desal Prize is the second call for innovations under Securing Water for Food: a Grand Challenge for Development (SWFF), which is a multilateral partnership supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands (MFA-NL)). The prize was designed to harness innovative technologies to create environmentally sustainable small-scale brackish water desalination systems that can provide potable water for humans, as well as water appropriate for agriculture in developing countries. In testing their technologies as part of the competition, the teams faced a number of the same challenges that they would in developing countries. During the two 24-hour test phases, competitors were only allowed to be onsite several times to simulate the need for reliable, low-maintenance systems that smallholder farmers could operate. They had to innovate and problem-solve on the fly, an especially important skill as the teams move into the next stage of the competition, where they will have to address country- (and even community-) specific issues and needs.

Through this head-to-head competition, two winners emerged: in first place, Team MIT and Jain Irrigation Systems designed a photovoltaic-powered electrodialysis reversal (EDR) system that desalinates water by using electricity to pull charged particles out of the water and further disinfects using ultraviolet rays. The system was designed for low energy consumption, limiting costs especially in off-grid areas. In second place Team University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Center for Inland Desalination Systems designed a Zero Discharge Desalination (ZDD) technology that reduces water waste in the desalination of groundwater by conventional processes; electrodialysis uses voltage to remove undesirable ions from water. MIT and Jain Irrigation Systems were awarded $160,000; UTEP Center for Inland Desalination Systems was awarded $40,000.

Team Green Desal, which consisted of members from the Asian Institute of Technology and Management, the National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension, State University of Ponta Grossa, Technion-Israel University of Technology, and the University of North Texas, received an Honorable Mention. This team developed a high-percent recovery system that integrates proven technologies in reverse osmosis, ion exchange, nanofiltration, re-mineralization, and disinfection. 

Testing these technologies in the American Southwest amidst recent reports of widespread drought and increasing water scarcity highlighted the issue of water security as a truly universal one. It is estimated that in the next 10 years, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water stress conditions. While there is a pressing need for solutions in developing countries, the Desal Prize has also demonstrated that these technological advances may be relevant in other parts of the world as well. With more than 70 percent of global water use occurring in the food value chain and the world’s population continuing to grow, we must increasingly look to game-changing solutions that will increase water availability and promote efficient use of water in agriculture — from California to the Middle East and India.

Now, these teams will begin the process of applying for a collective $400,000 in grants and technical support to pilot their technologies with smallholder farmers in USAID Mission regions with the biggest “water for food” challenges. The teams will work with SWFF to determine the countries most suitable for their technologies. In engaging experts from across a broad range of disciplines and expertise, we hope to tap the transformative power of science and ingenuity to develop scalable, affordable solutions that address one of the most critical global issues. We continue to do this through initiatives like SWFF’s third call for innovations, which is currently seeking cutting-edge, advanced technologies to that can aid water and food security, as well as prioritize the engagement of women in agriculture. (The call closes on May 22nd.) Congratulations to the winners of the Desal Prize. We look forward to working with you to provide water for food.