A Solar Solution to Water Shortage - Start-up Week


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of WaterFX.

An innovative desalination plant provides fresh water to desperate farmers by taking advantage of California’s greatest resource: sunshine.

Aaron Mandell, co-founder and chairman of startup WaterFX, spoke with BTR’s Matthew DeMello on this week’s episode of the Third Eye Weekly podcast on BreakThru Radio.

“We use about 20 percent of the electricity of a conventional desalination plant and the rest of the energy required for separating fresh water comes from the sun,” says Mandell. “So our process is almost entirely driven by solar energy.”

For nearly a year, WaterFX has been working for California’s Panoche Water and Drainage District, helping to supply 14,000 gallons of fresh water a day. Large, concave solar panels use the sun’s heat to distill salt, minerals, and contamination from irrigation runoff.

The solar plant is the first of its kind in the United States and has enough of a demand that expansion seems likely. This plant is more effective in affordability and environmental sustainability than conventional desalination systems. The private company also proves to be a more reliable source than the current federal irrigation program that depends on water supplies from other regions.

WaterFX costs about $450 for an acre-foot of water, meaning one acre filled to a foot with water, versus $2,000 for other standard sanitizing systems.

The difference in all these factors is where the energy comes from to decontaminate the water.

A typical desalination plant uses modern reverse osmosis technology, Mandell explains. This technology uses electricity to drive high-pressure pumps that force water through a semi-permeable membrane to extract contaminants. The solar panel plant, however, collects the sun’s heat into pipes that are filled with mineral oil. The mineral oil transfers the heat into a system that evaporates the contaminated water, and the steam is then condensed into purified water.

The electric technology that traditional desalination plants use requires fossil fuels. Further, only about half of the seawater that enters the system will be transformed into fresh water–an unfortunate side effect that leads to residual contaminated water getting dumped into the ocean.

Mandell’s plant purifies 93 percent of the water provided, and due to the more organic system, is able to sell the salt, minerals, and metals left over.

“We are running the pilot plant over the next couple months to produce salt samples that we are going to take to the chemical and construction industries to provide them with the raw materials that we think, long term, will have value,” says Mandell in conversation with Third Eye co-host Matthew DeMello.

While the pilot plant is funded by the California Department of Water Resources, WaterFX is looking to attract more private investment from innovators in Silicon Valley. As that renowned entrepreneurial area is just two hours north of the plant, Mandell is hoping to use a demonstrative module of the system that can effectively educate people on the value of investing into the well-being of their regional environment.

“Right now we have a lot of entrepreneurs and a lot of venture capitalists that are very focused on the next Facebook, or the next Snapchat, or the next Instagram,” says Mandell. “We are hoping that entrepreneurs will recognize what a tremendous opportunity there is in water and energy as really scarce resources that are really undervalued right now.”

These resources have the ability to save thousands of crops and potentially help prevent the future global water crisis that scientists predict may be in store within the next thirty years.

California’s arid heat and persistent droughts caused immense concern that transcends state boundaries. The state that provides nearly one third of the United States with fruits, vegetables, and almonds has faced a remarkably low precipitation rate this year.

According to the California Department of Water Resources, California’s average rainfall has been well below the normal 50 percent range for the 2013-2014 year. In addition, Business Insider reported that last year, farmers only received 20 percent of their water allotted to them through the Central Valley Project.

Renewable water systems like WaterFX offer prospects of long-term resolution to global environmental issues. In addition, businesses could become more independent in terms of water resources, as they would not have to rely on water being imported or provided by the state.

“I think a lot of people are still adjusting to the fact that we are having a permanent change in the temperature and the availability of natural fresh water,” says Mandell. “If you have salt water, if you have waste water, if you have irrigation water, and you have the ability to control the quality, then you can really be in charge of your own destiny.”

For more, check the interview with Aaron Mandell on this week’s episode of the Third Eye Weekly podcast on BreakThru Radio.