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Desalination plant in Hamburg harbor.
Desalination plant in Hamburg harbor | Image: Getty Images

Texas A&M University is part of the National Alliance for Water Innovation (NAWI) consortium, which was recently awarded a five-year, $100 million Energy-Water Desalination Hub by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that will address water security issues in the United States.  

Led by DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, NAWI is a research consortium with more than 35 members, including three national research laboratories, 19 university partners and 10 founding industry partners. The hub will focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies.

Dr. Shankar Chellam from the Zachry Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is lead researcher for the Texas A&M team, which includes Drs. Yossef Elabd and Jodie Lutkenhaus from the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering; Dr. Ying Li from the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Dr. Karen Wooley from the departments of  chemistry, chemical engineering and materials science and engineering.

“This grant forces us to step out of our comfort zone working in individual labs. I feel like I can actually do something to make a clear substantial difference in my lifetime at a large scale,” said Chellam. “Our efforts up until now have been roughly individual. From one perspective, the very fact that there are nearly 20 universities and scientists from national labs makes me believe that we will do something of clear value to not just the academic community, but society at large.”  

Chellam said the DOE’s goal is a four to five times energy reduction of desalination technologies. “They want us to not just come up with technological solutions, but to come up with solutions for problems at a low energy consumption,” he said.

The NAWI team will develop technologies that treat seawater, brackish water and produced waters, for use in municipal, industrial, agricultural, utility, oil and gas, and other water supply needs. These technology advancements will help domestic suppliers of water desalination systems to manufacture critical components and parts — including the design and manufacture of small-modular and large-scale systems.    

We also want to look at industrial needs,” said Chellam. “I am doing what is called road mapping for the mining industry. Stakeholders come to the table saying these are our problems, and we say, ‘Let’s develop a pathway from problem to solution.’”