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New Mexico State University

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NMSU researchers receive $400,000 to develop new water desalination technology

Researchers from New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) have received $400,000 from the state of New Mexico to develop a new technology for water desalination.

rd was announced Tuesday by Gov. Bill Richardson as part of the Governor's Water Innovation Fund. This $10 million fund was established to develop new technologies or conservation projects to help meet the state's water needs.

Much of New Mexico's groundwater contains salt in concentrations too high for use as either drinking water or for irrigation. PSL submitted a proposal for a new desalinization process that is based on proprietary technology developed by its Emerging Technologies Laboratory. The process separates dissolved solids, resulting in water suitable for agriculture or drinking. The process can be tailored to provide water of varying levels of purity. For instance, if the water were to be used for agriculture, it would not be purified as much as water to be used for drinking.

Researchers at PSL will use the state funds to set up a desalinization demonstration plant on the NMSU campus. Bob Silver, director of PSL's Emerging Technologies Laboratory, said he expects the plant will be operational in about six months.

The technology developed by PSL differs from traditional water desalination techniques. Typically, water is purified by either reverse osmosis or thermal distillation. In the reverse osmosis process, water is pumped through a membrane at high pressure. Fresh water is able to pass through, while salt is left behind. In thermal distillation, water is heated to steam and re-condensed to remove the salt.

"Both processes have their drawbacks," Silver said. "Reverse osmosis purification systems use fragile membranes that are prone to fouling. Regular replacement of the membranes in a commercial desalination plant constitutes the single highest cost factor for delivering purified water. Thermal distillation plants require large amounts of energy to heat water for evaporation, resulting in high fuel costs for operation."

Silver said PSL researchers are optimistic that their technology will use approximately the same amount of energy to purify water as the reverse osmosis technique, but without the need to regularly replace membranes and other high-cost items.