For the American West, this summer served up reminder after stark reminder of the urgent need to address the country’s water security. The drying up of the Southwest’s most important river–the Colorado River which is the source of water for one in 10 Americans–is more than enough to sound the alarm. But far worse: As of August, ninety nine percent of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains was reported to be experiencing drought.
This situation demands changes to water use, and today the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI) –a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Innovation Hub headquartered at Berkeley Lab– has outlined what it will take to achieve water sustainability through innovative water-treatment technology in a master technology roadmap.
This new report synthesizes the highest-impact results of the 2020 NAWI Roadmapping initiative, which focused on technical challenges across five sectors: power, resource extraction (mining and oil and gas exploration and production), industrial, municipal, and agriculture, collectively known as PRIMA. The PRIMA roadmaps released in May on each of these sectors identify the key R&D needed to lower the cost and energy of desalination of nontraditional water sources–such as seawater and brackish water–to provide a viable marginal water supply in the five PRIMA sectors. This would advance NAWI’s overall goal to achieve a circular water economy in which 90% of non-traditional water supplies can be cost-competitive with existing water sources.
Peter Fiske, Executive Director for NAWI, believes the roadmaps come at a critical time as our nation confronts an onslaught of challenges to the resilience of our water supplies. “In many parts of the world, we’ve maximized freshwater use about as far as we can go, in some places: too far,” says Fiske. “What we need is a concerted R&D strategy that makes more of the world’s overall water supply available for human use, while reducing our overall impact on the environment. We believe that such a strategy can provide new desalination technologies to enable 90% of non-traditional water sources like brackish water, seawater, and produced water, to be cost-competitive with current marginal water supplies.”
Demands for freshwater continue to increase, even as supply dwindles. The UN estimates that the world loses approximately 57 acres of arable land per minute to drought. Bringing our use of freshwater in line with supply requires making more efficient use of existing water resources, and developing efficient means of using water that until now has gone unused or even discarded.
For example, immense underground reservoirs of brackish water lie beneath some of the world’s most drought-stricken regions. This water is too saline to be used in its current state, and desalination is still too costly and inefficient to render it widely usable. The roadmaps and synthesis papers published by NAWI describe a framework for developing technologies that bring a wider range of water sources within reach by addressing challenges such as this, while ensuring that we use them as efficiently as possible.
It’s an ambitious goal, but one that NAWI leadership believes we can and must achieve.
“Most freshwater is used once and then thrown away. Cost- and energy-efficient desalination could be a powerful tool to enable greater water reuse and a more resilient water supply overall,” says Fiske. “These roadmaps are a critical resource, not only to guide our own research program but also to inform other research investments in desalination and water reuse in the U.S. and abroad.”
NAWI is a research alliance headquartered at Berkeley Lab and includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and 37 other research consortium members and more than 250 Alliance member organizations. It is supported by the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.
NAWI was selected by DOE in 2019 to lead a DOE Energy Innovation Hub to not only conduct research but also develop a roadmap to prioritize the highest-impact technology options, then identify and solicit projects to support those priorities. Earlier this summer, NAWI announced the news that it had awarded $5 million in federal funding to six projects which specifically address the challenges associated with managing concentrated brine waste that is a by-product of the desalination process employed in manufacturing and resource extraction, for example.
The master roadmap and PRIMA roadmaps are available here.