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IBM dives into water tech

Big Blue details its strategy for conserving fresh water, including cloud computing services to analyze water meter data and a new energy-efficient water filter.

IBM on Friday disclosed the elements of an initiative to sell technology and services to better manage fresh water, often referred to as the "oil of the 21st century."

The company said it has technology, now being tested at the SmartBay project in Galway, Ireland, to gather and analyze data to improve water conservation. It also announced a membrane for purifying saltwater that was developed by IBM in collaboration with other researchers.

The water strategy, part of IBM's Big Green Innovations project started two years ago, is set to be officially announced at the World Water Forum, which starts Monday in Istanbul, Turkey.

Managing fresh water is increasingly becoming a concern for governments and industries around the world, with the ongoing droughts in Australia and California being prominent examples.

IBM expects that water conservation can be improved by using sensors to gather data and analyzing the data on high-end computers. It has developed a suite of water-management offerings that combine consulting services and computing, including water metering for utilities.

The SmartBay research program around Galway Bay, for example, monitors wave conditions, marine life, and pollution levels and uses IBM's "cloud" computing services to predict water conditions.

"Regardless of industry or geography, smarter water management is an issue faced by every business and government on the planet," Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM, said in a statement. "Without sufficient insight into near- and long-term factors affecting your water supply and usage--complex issues such as access, quality, cost and re-use--you increasingly run the risk of failure."

To date, however, there hasn't been a great deal of investment in water-related technologies. Investors and entrepreneurs have been wary of trying to sell new technology, such as purification membranes, to the cash-strapped and conservative municipalities that manage fresh water.

There is also a close tie between energy and water as pumping fresh water or purifying seawater are very energy-intensive. Twenty percent of California's energy use is said to be tied to water.

The membrane filter that IBM and collaborators designed is relatively energy efficient and resistant to degradation by chlorine, a typical problem of membrane filtration.