UTEP Engineers Compete in International Desalination Challenge
November 18, 2014
A team of engineers from The University of Texas at El Paso has advanced to the semi-finals in an international competition known as the Desal Prize. The goal is to reduce worldwide water scarcity by encouraging and accelerating innovative solutions to treat brackish water — water that is saltier than freshwater, but less salty than seawater — in developing countries.
Few cost-effective technologies exist that are suitable for treating brackish water in rural or remote settings. The competition aims to solve that problem by challenging participants to create environmentally sustainable small-scale brackish water desalination systems. The prototypes should be able to generate drinkable water for humans, as well as water for crops.
"We are very excited and definitely committed to putting out the best team possible," said Malynda Cappelle, a member of the group who also serves as the associate director of the Center for Inland Desalination Systems (CIDS) at UTEP. "It's going to be a tough competition; we're going against some of the top researchers in the world, but we've got an excellent technology, too."
The UTEP CIDS team, which also includes Director of CIDS Tom Davis, Ph.D., and Shane Walker, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering, plans to use its Zero Discharge Desalination (ZDD) system for the competition, which relies on nanofiltration membranes to separate salt from water. The technology is expected to have a 93 percent recovery rate, meaning 93 percent of the brackish water that goes through the system will be drinkable or usable for irrigation.
The technology, which must be completely autonomous, will run on electricity generated from solar panels. Over the course of 24 hours, the solar panels need to produce enough power to provide about 2,100 gallons of water for irrigation and 66 gallons of drinking water.
"Our biggest challenge will be to make this autonomous," said Davis, who is also a professor of civil engineering. "We've never made a solar powered desalination system, but we're looking forward to the opportunity."
As a semi-finalist, UTEP will move to phase two of the competition, which includes facing off against seven other teams and their technologies. Competitors include individuals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Asian Institute of Technology and Management.
In spring 2015, the teams will gather in Alamogordo, New Mexico for the first technology demonstration. Participants will be judged on several criteria, including cost-effectiveness, durability and percent water recovery. The three frontrunners from the event will compete in Jordan in the fall of 2015 for the final challenge.
In the end, the top-scoring system will be commercialized to help satisfy water demand in communities across the globe. The team that achieves the highest score will also receive a $250,000 prize.
One other semi-finalist in the competition — Suns River UTEP — is also affiliated with the University. While the desalination technology was developed by the company KII Inc., UTEP engineering students will assist with the preparation of the prototype for the competition. The UTEP CIDS team will also use students to design, build and operate their ZDD system.
"Our students have the opportunity to be involved in two very different projects," Cappelle said. "This is going to push them to apply their skills to solve real-world issues."
The Desal Prize is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands.