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IBM, Saudis to open solar desalination plant

Joint chemistry and nanotechnology breakthroughs are being pooled to convert the sun and sea into potable drinking water for one Saudi Arabian city.

The plant will use ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic cells similar to this concentrated photovoltaic solar panel developed by IBM Research. IBM

IBM and Saudi Arabia's national research group are opening a solar-powered desalination plant in the city of Al-Khafji.

The pilot plant will supply water to about 100,000 people and pump out about 30,000 cubic meters of potable drinking water per day. It will run exclusively on solar-powered electricity, and showcase two technology breakthroughs that were the result of a multi-year collaborative research agreement signed in 2008 by IBM and the Saudi research group known as the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

On the solar end, the plant will use ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic (UHCPV) cells that were developed by one of the IBM/KACST joint projects. One of IBM's nanotechnology groups has also been working in conjunction with KACST scientists to develop better nanostructure polymers for the nanomembranes used in reverse osmosis seawater desalination. In addition to removing salt, the IBM/KACST nanomembranes can also filter out toxins, including arsenic. The nanomembrane used requires significantly less electricity than the average high-pressure reverse-osmosis system used by many desalination systems today, according to IBM.

The combined nanomembrane and ultra-high CPV technology is on track to make desalination so inexpensive, it could in the future become "economically feasible to produce water for agricultural purposes," according to IBM's Smarter Planet blog.

Work on the nanomembrane desalination technology and the UHCPV technology was done by scientists at the IBM Research labs in New York and California, and the KACST/IBM Nanotechnology Center of Excellence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, which claims to be largest producer of desalinated water in the world, already had several desalination projects under way through KACST. The goal, however, is not simply to provide a source of drinking water but to create an exportable industry around water purification technology.

"We want to create a cluster of companies in the kingdom and take this technology and market it around the world," Turki Al Saud, vice president for research institutes at KACST, said in a statement.

Of course, IBM and the Saudis are not the only ones working on a better reverse-osmosis membrane. Oasys Water, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that grew out of a Yale University research project, has produced what it calls Engineered Osmosis (EO). In February 2009 Oasys received $10 million in venture capital funds to further develop the technology. Oasys likewise claims that its new membrane requires far less power to produce potable drinking water.