Water scarcity and insecurity is a pervasive problem around the world. Climate change, population growth, and changes in how communities use freshwater all contribute to shrinking resources worldwide. In the next few years, water managers in 40 U.S. states expect to face increased freshwater shortages. Water is not only necessary for individuals to hydrate, clean, and cook, it is also essential to produce food and energy.
Solving a Looming Problem
From seas to sewers to salty groundwater, it may seem like water is everywhere you look. But the amount of freshwater available on Earth is limited—and demand is rising. Equalizing freshwater demand with supply requires more efficient use of existing water resources. And that requires new, innovative ways to repurpose or reuse water that is often unused or 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. But how can unconventional water sources become a cost-effective and sustainable way to boost draining supplies?
The National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI) is developing technologies that bring a wider range of unconventional water sources within reach while ensuring efficient-as-possible usage. Formed in 2017 as a partnership between Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Energy Technology Laboratory and roughly 30 stakeholders across the academic, industry, and non-profit spheres, NAWI was incorporated as a Department of Energy innovation hub in 2020. It currently exists as a five-year, $110 million research program that brings together experts from over 300 organizations, including national laboratories, universities, companies, water utilities, and state agencies.
“Today’s water system is not sustainable for a number of reasons,” said Yarom Polsky, NAWI’s Process Innovation and Intensification topic area leader and a group leader for the Sensors and Embedded Systems group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We’re at a point where we’re beginning to have to treat sources of water that are much more complicated that require more advanced water treatment technologies.”
NAWI’s Present Roadmap
NAWI is working to design energy-efficient and cost-effective desalination technologies, which extract salts and other impurities from both salt water and wastewater to produce clean water with the same (or higher) quality as current water treatment methods. They aim to achieve this for 90% of nontraditional water resources within the next 10 years.
How, exactly? To recycle wastewater while reducing energy use and water treatment costs, NAWI has a plan—or five, to be exact. Following a 2020 roadmapping initiative, the NAWI Alliance published five technology roadmaps (and one master roadmap) tailored to five sectors: power, resource extraction (which includes mining for minerals and oil), industrial, municipal, and agricultural (PRIMA). Many desalination technologies are still relatively expensive. But NAWI’s roadmaps can guide technology developers and adopters to overcome technological and economic barriers as well as social and cultural hurdles.
“We aim to identify the key barriers to lowering the cost and energy of water treatment and then attack those barriers through a coordinated campaign of applied research,” said Peter Fiske, the executive director of NAWI and a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
NAWI’s master roadmap synthesizes the highest-priority research needs for state-of-the-art, emerging, and existing desalination and advanced water technologies. In 2021 and 2022, NAWI added to their growing list of guides and tools, publishing eight foundational, sector-specific, baseline studies that provide a comprehensive assessment of challenges and opportunities associated with different source waters, which could help accelerate the creation of a circular water economy. Several of these studies relied on a new analytical tool developed by NAWI researchers. Called the Water Technoeconomic Assessment Platform (TAP), this tool evaluates water treatment costs, energy needs, environmental impacts, and resiliency trade-offs in a consistent manner across sectors.
Did you miss NAWI’s recent sector-specific studies? Here’s a refresher of what desalination technologies can offer individual sectors, such as:
- Power: NAWI researchers explored the economic and technical feasibility of extracting salt from seawater for use in power plants, for example, as well as reusing water that cools machinery in power plant facilities to keep them running safely.
- Resource Extraction: NAWI researchers assessed how novel water treatment technologies and strategies can help mining operations reclaim water used to clean quarried material. They also studied how the oil and gas industries could transition to new water treatment technologies to reclaim and reuse the wastewater generated from cooling the rigs used to extract oil from the ground.
- Industrial: Including food and beverage companies, data centers, and industrial campuses, industry makes up the fourth largest category of U.S. water use. In this study, researchers at NAWI explored the potential for industrial wastewater to serve as an alternative water resource for these same companies, irrigation of farms or city parks, or drinking water.
- Municipal: Two NAWI studies examined the cost and energy needed for alternative municipal water treatment methods and the challenges and opportunities of desalinating brackish water from groundwater, for use in irrigation or as drinking water, for example.
- Agricultural: A significant amount of freshwater is used to grow fruits and vegetables and raise livestock in the United States. In fact, irrigation for farms may account for 42% of total freshwater use in the United States, according to this 2021 NAWI study, which examined the institutional and economic barriers preventing states from reusing agricultural drainage.
Preparing For the Future
In early 2022, NAWI also issued a request for information on innovative, small-scale desalination and water-reuse technologies and systems. This effort could lead to a request for proposals to build and operate small-scale systems to treat unconventional water sources and achieve pipe parity (meaning similar- or higher-quality water than conventional water treatment methods.)
“We do not have a water shortage on this planet,” said Benny Freeman, a NAWI Research Consortium and Alliance member and chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The problem is that it’s contaminated with salt and other constituents. I think, in the future, we’re going to have a society and an environment where we have enormous amounts of water … because of desalination technologies.”