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Posted 8/27/2015

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By Patrice Creel
US Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Public Affairs


Dr. Jonathon Brame shared his expertise as a research environmental engineer in the ERDC-EL Chemistry Branch to judge an innovation competition in April known as the Desal Prize, with the mission of identifying desalination technologies for the developing world.

Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the four-day competition attracted university and commercial teams to the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility (BGNDRF) of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Facility Manager Randy Shaw commented on the selected location, saying that, “I think it’s significant that we are having the Desal Prize here. This is the ideal test bed for desalting water.  We’re in a very arid region of our country, and we are in a basin here that is full of brackish water. Some estimate there are 30 trillion gallons of brackish water in this basin.”

Brackish or briny water is defined as having more salinity than fresh water but not as much as seawater. Developing the best and most cost-effective way of removing salt from this water would have major impacts on farmers and populations worldwide.

In the competition’s featured video, Brame said, “Water is the next frontier, and as much as we have worried about energy and where we are going to get our energy in the future, in the coming years water is going to be that next worry.  We have so much water on earth, I mean 70 percent of the earth is covered in water, but right now it is not economically accessible.”

                                         ERDC’s involvement and judging criteria

Brame explained that USAID approached the Corps of Engineers for a judge with knowledge and experience in water treatment and technologies and to also expand the footprint of the prize itself. 

“Anthony Niles and John Daley reached out to the EL Technical Director Dr. Elizabeth Ferguson for expertise in this area, and she referred Dr. Victor Medina and me.  Dr. Medina had recently started an Environmental Quality and Installations (EQI) focus area developing advanced water treatment technologies,” said Brame, who became an EL team member in July 2014 after six years there as an ERDC Science, Mathematics And Research for Transformation  (SMART) student.

Joining fellow water expert judges from the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Spain’s Department of Energy, the Middle East Desalination Research Center and USAID, Brame represented the Corps and was sponsored by the EQI focus area, “Deployable Treatment of Decontamination Effluent.” 

“Judging criteria included the team’s technological approach, water quality and quantity produced, whether the technology was powered exclusively by renewable energy, the system recovery percentage, the use of chemical treatment, implementation of a concentrate minimization/disposal process, the lifecycle cost of the technology and the durability, reliability and practicality of the technology for use in the developing world. 

“Both lecture-style and actual test-site presentations were made to the panel to help us understand the technology, how it works, strengths and weaknesses and how it could be implemented in the developing world,” Brame said.

                                             Winners and future demonstrations

“The winners were announced on Earth Day, April 22, 2015.  A team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won first prize of $140,000 with their solar-powered electrodialysis reversal system, while a team from University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) won second prize of $60,000 for their Zero Discharge Desalination (ZDD) technology with a combination of reverse osmosis and electrodialysis for waste minimization, also powered by solar energy.  The team from the University of North Texas won an honorable mention for their system utilizing reverse osmosis, ion exchange and nanofiltration powered by wind and solar energy. 

“The top three finishers are eligible to receive $400,000 in grants to fund an in-country pilot demonstration in one of the USAID mission countries later this year.  The winner of the grand prize, a joint team from MIT and Jain Industries, already has a business plan for implementation in rural India.  Their technology was developed specifically to meet the water quality requirements in villages where Jain Irrigation operates. 

“Many of these villages have moderately brackish water that requires desalination prior to agriculture or potable home use.  The partnership between MIT and Jain gives this group incredible access to a vast support and distribution network in India, given Jain’s distributed maintenance and support system,” Brame said. 

He added the runner-up team from UTEP also has a good relationship with water treatment facilities in Mexico where that team plans to implement future desalination technologies.

                                                      Follow-up with winners

“The winners are still busy working on their follow-up pilot project, and USAID will announce more specifics about those demonstrations later this year.  Each of the teams that competed was also given the opportunity to remain in Alamogordo at BGNDRF to continue testing and fine-tuning their technologies for further development.  This facility is a top-of-the line research complex for testing desalination technologies, with access to large-scale sources of brackish water, a chemistry lab on-site open to researchers, an equipment shop, warehouse and a helpful and knowledgeable staff for testing assistance,” Brame said.  

He noted this competition may be ERDC’s first official role within the U.S. Global Development Lab (GDL), described on the lab website as “a new entity bringing together a diverse set of partners to discover, test and scale breakthrough solutions to achieve what human progress has only now made possible—the end of extreme poverty by 2030.” 

“They sponsor a variety of competitions, prizes, workshops and research activities aimed at solving problems associated with global poverty, including water, food, sanitation and education.  Many of the missions and goals of the ERDC provide technologies and solutions that overlap closely with those of the GDL, and I believe that future partnerships would be mutually beneficial to both organizations,” Brame said.

The event received extensive news coverage, including articles in Popular Science, USA Today and front page of the NBC News Science.

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