Israel-Texas researchers win top desalination award

Winners of USAID Desal Prize will ‘pay forward’ their $125,000 prize money and expertise to build water plant in Jordan

Illustrative photo of a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

Texas is no stranger to droughts, a fact that long ago prompted local leaders to seek technologies that ensure a steady supply of water. With Israel a world leader in water technology, it was only natural that the longhorn state would team up with the Jewish state.

One of the fruits of that collaboration — a joint desalination project involving researchers from the Technion in Haifa and the University of North Texas — has won the $125,000 Desal Prize competition sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of the Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge, with support from Sida, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Israeli and American winners of the award announced that they will use the prize money to help build a water treatment plant in Jordan.

Researchers at the Technion’s Stephen and Nancy Grand Water Research Institute joined the competition at the request of researchers from the electrical engineering department at the University of North Texas. The American researchers, who focused on developing a solution to the alternative energy aspect of the competition, asked Prof. Carlos Dosoretz and Prof. Ori Lahav, researchers from the Technion Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, to design a solution for the desalination component of the project, and to submit a joint proposal. Other researchers from universities in Jordan, Nepal and Brazil worked on other components of the project.

“Hundreds of proposals from around the world were submitted in this competition,” said Lahav, from the Technion, where the desalination system was designed. “At the end of 2014 our proposal advanced to the semi-final stage, along with the proposals of seven other groups.”

Six groups participated in the final round, which was held last month in New Mexico. The participating teams were given two days to set up a complete, fully operational pilot system, and operate it autonomously for 48 hours to demonstrate its effectiveness in the field.

“The water treatment process was based on an innovative combination of three technologies – reverse osmosis, ion exchange and nano-filtration,” Lahav said. “The challenge was to find a solution for problematic water characterized by particularly high concentrations of dissolved calcium and sulfate.”

To do that, the researchers used a combination of wind and solar energy to power the system – with the result a self-sustaining and autonomously powered desalination system that could be deployed in any environment, taking in brackish water from the sea or desert aquifers and turning it into potable water.

This past weekend, Texas experienced torrential rains that resulted in major flooding. But for most of the state, the storms were the first significant rains in nearly half a decade. Since 2010, Texas has been suffering from a major drought – the worst in its history, according to officials.

Mark Ellison (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Ellison (Photo credit: Courtesy)

It was an eight-year-long drought in the 1950s that convinced Texas officials that they needed something beyond clouds and stormy weather to supply the state’s growing population with water, said Mark Ellison, a regional director of sales for Israeli desalination tech firm IDE and a former manager of strategic water initiatives for Texas Governor Rick Perry.

“We have 1,000 people a day moving to Texas, and the only way we are going to be able to supply them with water is with advanced technology.”

Israel, he said is a good source for that technology, he said, noting the country is experienced in supplying water for its citizens, as well as for residents of Jordan (as part of the peace treaty, Israel sends millions of gallons of water to Jordan).

The Israel-Texan team will collaborate with Jordanian colleagues to implement their solution in that water-challenged country – a development that could augur well for other parts of the world where water resources are hard to come by, especially for agriculture, said Christian Holmes, USAID Global Water Coordinator.

“By 2050, global water demand is expected to increase by 55%, and 70% of global water use occurs in food production,” he stressed, and if the world wants to feed itself, more innovative technologies – like the top projects in the DESAL competition – are going to be needed.

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