News Feature | January 21, 2019

With Massive Federal Investment, Desalination May Cure Ongoing Drought

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

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The latest solution for national water scarcity may seem like a major technical challenge, but with a nine-figure investment and federal backing, it could be a gamechanger.

The U.S. Energy Department plans to spend $100 million in the next five years to establish a research and development center for perfecting desalination and hopefully putting an end to drought conditions across the country.

“Announced roughly five years after Congress appropriated the funds under the Obama administration, the planned hub comes as once-periodic water shortages have become perennial, if not ever-present, in American communities, forcing policymakers to rethink how residents get freshwater — and reconsider technologies they’d once shelved,” U.S. Newsreported.

Israel, Australia, countries throughout the Middle East and others have worked to perfect desalination for years. And the U.S. already has its fair share of operations.

“The largest, in Carlsbad, California, supplies 50 million gallons a day to some 400,000 residents in San Diego County,” per U.S. News. “The process, in fact, was pioneered in the U.S.: The Bureau of Reclamation funded an office on saline research as early as the 1950s.”

The fundamentals of desalination are still a significant obstacle to widespread adoption. Neither heating water until it evaporates and leaves salt behind nor membrane separation to separate water and salt are particularly cost efficient.

But with significant investment and backing from the Energy Department, the new hub may strike upon a better method, thus spurring wider adoption. It is a direct result of the “Water Security Grand Challenge,” a Department of Energy framework seeking to meet the need for safe, secure, and affordable clean water around the world.

“Technological achievements generated through the Hub will help us achieve several strategic goals established through the Water Security Grand Challenge announced earlier this year,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said, according to a press release on the recent investment. “By focusing R&D efforts on advancing transformational technologies that promote cost-effective desalination, we are working towards meeting the national and global need for secure, affordable water.”

Only time will really tell whether this latest effort can encourage the mainstream adoption of desalination and really secure the supply of clean water around the globe. What is clear already, however, is that this latest effort has caused some optimism.

“This program has the potential to dramatically change the freshwater market in this country,” a former Energy Department employee told U.S. News. “Think about the supply cost of LED lights. There was no adoption, no adoption, and suddenly, the market developed incredibly fast. That’s the sort of thing that you hope will come out of this.”

To read more about desalination methods and efforts visit Water Online’s Source Water Scarcity Solutions Center.

Image credit: "James Forrestal Building," Begemont © 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/