Solving the World’s Water Problems through Technology

by | May 22, 2012

As I read report after report about the daunting water infrastructure and scarcity challenges we all face, I am heartened by the promise of technological innovation. Everywhere I look in the water world, I see talented, dedicated people developing smart, new solutions to some of our most intractable problems. Some of the solutions involve creating more energy efficient treatment technologies, while others find better ways to collect data and harness it for more efficient operations.

For example, I recently attended a Water Environment Council (WEC) dinner in Washington, D.C., awarding IBM the 2012 Gold Medal for advancing environmental sustainability both internally and with customers. As I listened to IBM’s Chairman Sam Palmisano’s remarks in accepting the award, I heard quite a bit about how IBM is helping cities deal more efficiently with water challenges.

What Companies Are Making the Biggest Splash?

Along with GE, Intel, American Water and many other organizations, IBM is a member of the Water Innovations Alliance (WIA). WIA is an industry association focused on developing new funding, increasing collaboration and raising awareness for cutting-edge water technologies.

WIA looks to promote efficient water use and reduce water-related energy consumption through the development and implementation of smart water systems, similar to those that have been used for electricity distribution. A smart water system would replace the current system with an innovative technology suite, including sensing and monitoring, information exchange and data analytics. Smart systems allow for seamless, two-way communication of information between the utility and various sensors. They offer more frequent, detailed information on water usage, pressure, quality and leaks which allows utilities to better monitor data, promote conservation and water efficiency, and quickly identify and address problems.

According to the WIA, a smart water system would also have enormous impact on the economy, creating more than $100 billion in capital savings and lowering operating costs on average by a third. The average community of 55,000 residents could reduce operating costs by 15 percent, reduce water loss by more than 25 percent (saving almost 80,000 gallons or 250 acre feet of water), and realize energy savings of almost 20 percent or 325,000 kilowatt hours.

Why Research Matters

But not all work is taking place at the industry or foundation level. Governments and universities are playing a major role, too. On the federal government level, I just returned from visiting Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, NM, and I was surprised and thrilled to learn they are working on a wide variety of cutting edge new water initiatives. In addition, the US Bureau of Reclamation is working on a number of innovative new approaches to water treatment, as are many large municipal organizations like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

At the University level, David Zoldoske, Director of the International Center for Water Technology at Fresno State, is working on a number of promising new agricultural water technologies. One new piece of equipment is their “air-jection” system that injects air into buried drip lines at a rate of approximately 10-11 percent on a volume basis via a venture injector system. The process has documented increased yields of 10 to 30 percent, primarily in vegetables. The yield increase is driven by an improved air/water mix in the root-zone directly beneath the drip emitter. There is a small increase in pressure requirements for injecting air into the system.

But even more than conducting research, universities are also incubating promising new water technology companies. For example, students at the University of Virginia’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Darden School of Business are incubating two new water ventures. One example is Apollo Water which is developing a low-cost, easy-to-use water purification and desalinization system for use primarily in the developing world.

The Future of Water Innovation

Going forward, the relatively new Cincinnati-based water technology innovation cluster, known as Confluence, offers an interesting model for future innovation. Confluence is focused on creating a water technology hub, and it has a number of elements that position it for success:

  • A diverse board, including representatives from industry, academia, public utilities, etc.
  • Federal (United States Environmental Protection Agency) and state agency support and input
  • A business advisory council to communicate the water challenges to bring forth targeted innovation
  • An annual water conference which brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, keynotes and panel discussions providing valuable insights on the regulatory environment, market demand and emerging technologies

Overall, we need a community of government, industry, academia and other stakeholders all working together to develop and implement new technologies. At the end of the day, it is essential new technologies meet regulatory requirements and minimize energy usage so they can be deployed in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way. In other words, it is critically important to be able to commercialize new technologies. That means we need both fundamental research, but also demonstration projects with industrial, agricultural and municipal users.

Jon Freedman is global government relations leader at GE Power & Water.

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