Meet the Semi-Finalists of the American-Made Solar Desalination Prize

July 11, 2022 | Annabelle Swift, Associate, CEBN

The American-Made Solar Desalination Prize has invested over $15 million since 2019 for teams to develop and commercialize technologies in solar desalination. These innovations have impactful applications to improve access to clean water, including in remote areas, powered by clean energy. Teams are developing novel solutions to treat wastewater, drinking water, and produced water from oil and gas–without the intensive carbon footprint of historically-available technologies.

The American-Made Program has announced semi-finalists from Round 1 and Round 2 of the Solar Desal Prize. With support from the Department of Energy (DOE), National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), and CEBN, the following 14 teams are in the process of bringing their innovative technologies to market.

Meet the semi-finalists below! Please contact the Clean Energy Business Network if you are interested in connecting with teams for investment opportunities, pilot demonstrations, or R&D partnerships.

Round 1 Semi-Finalists

BrineZero: Brine Concentration with Managed Salt Precipitates (Hopewell, NJ)

This team, led by AIL Research, is developing a membrane desalination system capable of handling very-high-salinity water and using recovered heat to preheat the brine feed. The system will be designed to pre-crystallize readily precipitating ions, such as magnesium and calcium, before the brine contacts the membrane, to prolong membrane lifetime. Managing the precipitation of salt and using recovered heat allows more water recovery from high-salinity brines. The team will focus their technology on the production of agricultural water for regions of the country where brackish groundwater is too saline to be used directly. They plan to install their prototype at Bell Ranch in California, in partnership with Global Water Innovations.

Connecticut Center for Applied Separations Technology: Membrane Distillation with Ceramic Membranes (Storrs, CT)

This team, led by researchers from the University of Connecticut, will integrate a newly developed ceramic membrane technology with a solar collector system to treat high-salinity or chemically complex brines. The ceramic membranes provide thermal and chemical stability that enable them to process challenging saline waters, operate at higher temperatures than existing polymeric membranes, and be more aggressively cleaned when fouled by scaling salts and organics. The team will be developing their pilot for deployment at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Water Treatment Plant in El Paso, Texas.

Espiku: Selective Condensation and Evaporation Using Precise Temperature Regulation (SCEPTER) (Corvallis, OR)

This team plans to advance and commercialize technology developed at Oregon State University and Michigan State University plans to advance a humidification-dehumidification process that can recover clean water from water produced by oil and gas extraction. A novel cyclone separator, which can be easily designed at small scale for portability, separates salt from humid air and enables the process. By separating humid air from solid salt particles, this technology could be a cost-effective method to achieve zero-liquid discharge. The team will design their pilot to be installed at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility.

Greenblu: Zero Discharge Multi-effect Adsorption Distiller (Trenton, NJ)

GreenBlu will develop a prototype plant of a zero-liquid discharge solar-thermal desalination system with mineral recovery using its multi-effect adsorption distillation technology. The concept has the potential to be much more thermally efficient, and require simpler operation and maintenance, relative to conventional distillation technology. This team has forged partnerships with key vendors and will be utilizing a solar collector field developed by Hyperlight, in Brawley, California, to host their pilot.

Katz Water Technologies: X-VAP—Self-Contained Distillation (Houston, TX)

Katz Water Technologies is redesigning its self-contained, compact distillation system to use solar-thermal energy instead of natural gas. The new design blends the existing multi-stage thermal distillation technology into a simpler design with the multi-stage process occurring in a single closed-loop heat exchanger. The technology has the potential to be a modular, portable system that can supply fresh water where needed. Prototype site testing is being planned at the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility, with a particular focus on the oil and gas production market.

Solar Desalt: Sorption-Based ZLD Technology (Houghton, MI)

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Michigan Technological University are integrating standard multiple-effect desalination system (MED) technology with a high-temperature desorption process and a low-temperature crystallization process to achieve zero liquid discharge (ZLD). They have identified a liquid that could extract all the water-vapor volume from the brine slurry of a MED system, thus enabling an energy-efficient, modular ZLD treatment. The team has selected a test site in Arizona provided by the solar collector supplier Rackam and is collaborating with a wastewater treatment plant as a potential customer for the produced desalinated water.

STREED – Resonant Energy Exchange Desalination (Houston, TX)

A team led by researchers from Rice University has developed a nanoparticle-based high-efficiency, low-maintenance solar-heated membrane distillation technology. The team will design a prototype of their nano-photonics solar absorber desalination system in combination with thermal energy storage. The team plans to develop a scalable system design that uses spiral-wound architecture to minimize the plant’s physical footprint, which will be located at either the Bureau of Reclamation’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility or a development near Corpus Christi, Texas, to provide fresh water.

The Hard Ion Team: Switchable Solvent Water Extraction from Brine (Rohnert Park, CA)

A team including researchers from Idaho National Laboratory and Trevi Systems is developing a solar-thermal-powered liquid/liquid extraction process that removes “hard” ions, like calcium and magnesium, before brine is treated by reverse osmosis, a conventional desalination process. This method could significantly improve the efficiency of reverse osmosis by allowing the process to operate over wider brine input conditions and requiring less maintenance to remove the scale caused by hard ions. The team has formed partnerships with Idaho National Labs, Artic Solar, and Global Water Innovation to develop and test their prototype at Bell Ranch in California, to target the agricultural water market.

Round 2 Semi-Finalists

Artic Solar: Engineered Solar-Thermal Osmosis (Jacksonville, FL)

A team led by Artic Solar has designed an integrated solar-thermal desalination system. The technology uses a thermally responsive solvent, which draws water from a brine stream. The solvent is then heated using an external compound parabolic concentrator, manufactured by Artic Solar, which separates the solvent from the generated fresh water. The team also includes Georgia Tech University and technology developers at Lawrence Berkely National Lab of the novel desalination process and other component suppliers. The team plans to test their system at Southern Company’s Water Research and Conservation Center in Georgia.

Planet A Energy: Solar Heat Collector With Built-in Storage (Pasadena, CA)

Planet A Energy has developed an innovative system concept that directly couples a low-cost solar collector with a low-cost thermal energy storage material that the solar collector can directly heat. The collector, absorber, and energy storage are all integrated into a single module, eliminating many of the system complexities associated with traditional CSP technologies. Planet A Energy has teamed with the Rosenblad Design Group and Aerometrix LLC. The team intends to couple Rosenblad’s proprietary evaporator technology with their collector and thermal energy storage systems at an Aerometrix desalination plant to demonstrate how this technology can be used to reduce the volume of brine wastewater.

SolMem: Solar NZLD (Houston, TX)

SolMem has developed a concept for desalination of various wastewater streams to produce drinking-quality water. The team’s membrane distillation (MD) technology simultaneously collects solar energy and desalinates water, greatly improving thermal efficiency and water recovery compared to conventional MD. SolMem has assembled a team that includes Winston Cone Optics and Rice University. The team intends to demonstrate their technology at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility.

Sunvapor: Solar Hybrid Desalination Process (Pasadena, CA)

Sunvapor’s patented Solar Hybrid Desalination Process excels at brine management— producing clean water from brines from a variety of sources, such as brackish water, produced water, reverse osmosis waste, and power plant cooling towers. Solar steam stored in our thermal battery provides the energy to operate day and night a hybrid evaporation and membrane process which improves efficiency and lowers the cost of brine concentration. Sunvapor is leading a world-class team including Suez and USC in the design of a pilot demonstration at a customer site in New Mexico.

Team Trident: Temperature Swing Solvent Extraction for Zero Liquid Discharge (TSSE-ZLD) Treatment of Produced Water (Santa Barbara, CA)

Team Trident has an innovative concept to targets a reduction in the cost of treating high-salinity brines for water produced from oil and gas extraction. By using low-grade thermal heat to drive TSSE’s separation and solvent regeneration processes, the technology advances a non-evaporative, non-membrane solar-thermal desalination concept, which can be implemented at a low capital and operating cost. In collaboration with Columbia University and Bechtel, the team plans to construct a prototype of their system at the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility.

Winston Cone Optics: Inland Brackish Water Desalination and Brine Concentration for Agriculture (Merced, CA)

Winston Cone Optics (WCO) has developed an innovative solar concentrator designed to minimize system capital costs, complexity, and operations and maintenance costs of the collector system of a solar-driven desalination process. Their technology is designed to be quick to deploy and portable, allowing solar-thermal water treatment systems to gain access to niche markets where seasonal or multi-site application is needed. WCO will couple their solar collector technology with Trevi Systems’ Switchable Solvent Water Softener technology, a forward-osmosis-based desalination system. The team will demonstrate their renewably powered, zero-liquid-discharge desalination prototype for the agricultural market with their partners, Global Water Innovation and Wacomet Water.