New water quality technologies make waves

Premium content from New Mexico Business Weekly by Kevin Robinson-Avila , NMBW Senior Reporter

Date: Friday, October 7, 2011, 4:00am MDT

New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela wants the Land of Enchantment to help the nation resolve its growing water supply problems.

In his keynote address Sept. 16 at the second annual “Watergy Conference,” a clean technology water symposium in downtown Albuquerque, Barela told water experts and businesspeople that New Mexico has the technical resources to lead.

“I want to see New Mexico as a center of water technology,” Barela said. “No other state has assumed leadership in commercializing new water technology, and we have the resources to do it.”

Barela struck a nerve with many water experts, who say new, cost-effective technologies to treat dirty, saline water will be key to resolving water-scarcity issues.

As populations have grown, communities have drawn down shallow ground water aquifers that have supplied most water needs for generations. That has local and state governments turning to surface water from rivers, and to reservoirs of brackish water found deep underground, to satisfy needs.

But to use those sources, municipalities must invest huge sums to desalinate and clean the water to state and federal standards. Finding better ways to do that is critical for addressing water scarcity, especially in New Mexico and the Southwest, which is one of the most water-stressed regions of the world. At least two New Mexico companies’ technologies are playing important roles in that effort.

Mike Hightower, a member of Sandia National Laboratories’ technical staff, said climate change and drought are exacerbating fresh-water shortages.

“Most communities are looking at nontraditional water supplies,” Hightower said. “Municipal waste water reuse is growing at 15 percent per year in the U.S., and desalinization [of brackish water] is growing at 10 percent. At that rate, municipalities will be using more waste and desalinized water than fresh water within 10 years.”

The need to treat more water, combined with stricter federal standards, is making treatment efforts more costly, said University of New Mexico Civil Engineering Professor Andrew Schuler.

“The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on nitrogen and phosphorus,” Schuler said. “There’s a class of emerging contaminants that must also be addressed through treatment, including pharmaceuticals, hormones and industrial chemicals in water.”

The national laboratories and New Mexico universities are investigating ways to make treatment systems more efficient and cost-effective, particularly methods to make desalination less energy-intensive, Hightower said.

The most common desalination process is reverse osmosis, which channels water through a membrane to capture salts and contaminants.

“Reverse osmosis uses high pressure to force water through the membranes, but you need a lot of energy to do it,” Hightower said. “As a result, new technologies are emerging to reduce the amount of pressure needed.”

Researchers are building better membranes with novel materials and coatings to improve performance. They’re also creating new processes to attract or catch contaminants rather them pushing them through filters.

At UNM, Schuler is experimenting with pieces of plastic that float in waste water, allowing bacteria to grow on it. That creates a biofilm on the plastic that naturally removes nitrogen and other pollutants.

“The biofilm uses contaminants, such as ammonia and hormones, as a food source to grow,” Schuler said.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in partnership with Sandia and New Mexico State University, also opened a 16,000-square-foot Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility in Alamogordo in August 2007 to test and evaluate new technologies.

“It’s a world-class, one-of-a-kind facility in the U.S.,” Hightower said.

Innovators, however, face challenges in commercializing new technologies. For one thing, water prices don’t reflect supply and demand, said UNM Civil Engineering Professor Bruce Thomson.

“Communities aren’t paying for the real cost of water,” Thomson said. “That’s probably one of the most serious challenges.”

That makes many investors reluctant to commit to new water technologies, said Kim Sanchez Rael, general partner with Flywheel Ventures in Albuquerque.

“It’s a long-term investment that needs a good revenue stream to grow the business,” Sanchez Rael said.

Still, two local companies, MIOX Corp. and Altela Inc., are successfully commercializing novel purification technologies.

And as water scarcity and quality issues grow, more technologies will enter the market, said State Engineer John D’Antonio.

“Conservation is the low-hanging fruit. Once we get past that, we’ll have to start looking at new technologies to provide more water,” D’Antonio said. “Emerging technology is the wave of the future.”