UT “WaterChip,” Plus a Startup, Could Make Desalination More Efficient
Millions of people die each year worldwide from a lack of fresh water. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have an innovation that could help prevent that—and they’re working with a startup to bring the technology to market.
The “WaterChip” creates a small electrical field that removes salts from seawater using a technique called electrochemically mediated desalination. Essentially, the WaterChip creates conditions that act like a filter, preventing salt from passing through and producing freshwater.
“The availability of water for drinking and crop irrigation is one of the most basic requirements for maintaining and improving human health,” says Richard Crooks, a chemistry professor at UT’s College of Natural Sciences, who invented the device.
Crooks and UT have partnered with Okeanos Technologies, a Louisville, KY-based startup to commercialize the WaterChip. So far, the startup has raised $2 million this year in grants and venture capital from sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Kentucky, and Alberto Chang Rajii, founder of Grupo Arcano and one of the original investors in Google. The team plans to have a prototype ready for field tests by early 2014.
The Okeanos device contains a microchannel with two branches. At the junction of those branches, an embedded electrode neutralizes the chloride ions in seawater, which then produces a change in the electric field sufficient to redirect salts into one branch while desalinated water flows into the other branch, resulting in usable fresh water.
If commercially successful, the device could be the first viable alternative to a costly technique that has largely remained the same since the 1950s. The world’s water desalination plants currently use a process called reverse osmosis, which counteracts the natural osmotic pressure, which forces saltwater and fresh water to combine in a receptacle, such as a tank.
The reverse osmosis process pushes the saltwater through a membrane separating the saltwater and the freshwater. The larger salt molecules cannot pass through the membrane, so only water molecules pass to the other side, creating fresh water. The WaterChip doesn’t use membranes, which are expensive.
Tony Frudakis, Okeanos’s founder and chief executive officer, also points out that the device uses less energy to desalinate seawater: 1 watt-hour of energy per liter compared to 4 watt-hours of energy per liter in traditional desalination plants.
“I’m very concerned about Malthusian nightmares,” he says. “Water is where all of the world’s problems start, in my opinion. Water availability determines food availability.”
Only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is fresh water. And nearly 70 percent of that is frozen in glaciers and ice caps.
Okeanos and the scientists do have two key challenges to meet before the WaterChip could be used commercially. So far, the device has only achieved 25 percent desalination. Drinking water must be desalinated by 99 percent. Also, Okeanos is working on scaling up the production so that a critical mass of water can be desalinated. The microchannels, which are about the thickness of a human hair, produce about 40 nanoliters of desalted water each minute. The device would need to be able to produce many times that amount to be practical for individual or communal use.
Yet the team seems undeterred. “There’s no fundamental, no scientific reason why it can’t scale,” Crooks says.
The WaterChip caught my eye because I lived in Dubai for four years, and we relied on desalinated water for everything. Should terrorism or bad luck shut down existing plants, we figured that the two million people who call the emirate home only had a few days’ worth of water supply—an unpleasant thought any time, but especially in the summer when temperatures regularly hit 115 degrees. Having a device like the WaterChip could be handy in such situations.
Frudakis says emergency and disaster relief is one of the markets Okeanos would target, along with traditional utility, industrial, and commercial customers. Okeanos would sell the WaterChip in cylinders that could be customized, depending on the use case.
Desalination is not useful just in faraway desert kingdoms. “We might have a small company on the West Coast that specializes in helping farmlands comply with the Clean Water Act,” he says. “Another potential partner in Europe is interested in the municipal market.”
Back home, the United States set up an Office of Saline Water in the Department of the Interior in the 1950s, and one of the first desalination plants was opened on the Gulf coast in Freeport, TX, in 1961, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Today, there are nearly 2,000 desalination plants at work in the United States, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan.
Okeanos, which is named for the Greek god of the ocean, employs 5 PhD scientists, including Frudakis. The startup has applied for a patent for the WaterChip, and continues to seek investors.
Down the road, there are potential new water sources, such as massive underground saltwater lakes, that could be harvested using the WaterChip, Frudakis says. “I want to see technologies develop that could potentially change the world for the better.”
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