UT “WaterChip,” Plus a Startup, Could Make Desalination More Efficient
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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.”