From: Andrew Webb, Albuquerque Journal
Published July 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Solar Power May Trim Cost of Cleaning Brackish Water

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than a third of last-year's Water Innovation Fund awardees submitted plans for reclamation and reuse of some sort of "impaired" or unpotable water.

Several are developing technology to desalinate brackish or salty water far below the earth's surface -- and more are expected to apply this year for funds to develop what some say are hundreds of millions of gallons of such water beneath New Mexico.

"Historically, this water is found in geological formations," said Joe Ortiz, vice president of Santa Fe-based Sustainable Resources Inc.

His two-person company got a $458,000 grant last year to solve two pressing problems that to date have made inland desalination prohibitively expensive for many cities.

Salt, sewer waste and other impurities can be removed from water by forcing it through a very fine filter or membrane -- a process called reverse osmosis. The process requires intense pressure, which is usually created using electricity.

Ortiz and business partner Melvin Prueitt aim to use proprietary technology to provide solar power and a new, more efficient pressure pump to complete the process.

They're not alone in trying to tap what some believe could help solve water shortages not only in the Southwest but around the globe.

Sandia National Laboratories engineer Mike Hightower estimates hundreds of millions of acre-feet of brackish water lie under New Mexico, with similar amounts in Texas. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons.

"That's a lot of water," he said.

Several cities, such as Scottsdale, Ariz., have small desalination plants used to supplement drinking water supplies, and more are coming on line every year, Hightower said. El Paso recently began constructing the world's largest inland desalination plant. The $30 million plant, which will supply supplemental fresh water to El Paso and nearby Fort Bliss, is to be completed by 2007.

About 15,000 such plants are in operation worldwide, though most are located in coastal regions and use seawater, which is considerably less saline than underground brackish water.

The cost of desalination continues to preclude widescale development of such plants, and most research today is focused on reducing its energy use, and therefore, its expense, Hightower said.

Ned Godshall, a former Sandia scientist and serial entrepreneur whose past projects include hydrogen fuel cell and solar energy-related companies, said his new company, Altela Inc., will likely apply for funding through this year's Water Innovation Fund.

Altela is also seeking ways to minimize the energy requirements of desalination and plans to start by supplying the oil and gas industry, which has to dispose of brackish water produced as a byproduct of oil drilling.

Godshall says clean water and energy needs will be inextricably tied in humanity's future -- as each is dependent on the other. For instance, electricity generation requires massive amounts of water to cool equipment.

"Fresh water is a huge problem for the Third World -- it's a bigger problem than energy," Godshall said. "Desalinization has the potential for solving the entire world's clean-water needs. But, like anything else, it has to be cost-effective wherever it's to be used."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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