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by Larry

December, 2009

Inventor Makes Desalination Cheaper Just As Water Crisis Deepens

China, India, several African countries, and numerous U.S. states and cities have been lately in the news with reports of growing water shortages. As human populations increase, water tables fall, and global warming causes climate shifts, with droughts more common and severe where previously they occurred infrequently or with relative mildness, potable water deficits are already extreme in places and likely to be so in many others unless there are solutions found soon.

China and other powers are seeking to expand their control over major tributaries in the hope of offsetting far worse water scarcities for their populations. Cities are preparing lawsuits in defense of their claims for water projects and usages threatened by competing interests. Open warfare in pursuit of greater access to and control of water supplies may now be only a few years off. Some argue it is devastating droughts in sub-Saharan Africa that have catalyzed genocidal and tribal conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands dead or maimed in the past couple decades.

A wall of dust approaching a Kansas town. In: "Effect of Dust Storms on Health," U. S. Public Health Service, Reprint No,. 1707 from the Public Health Reports, Vol. 50, no. 40, October 4, 1935. (NOAA Photo LIbrary)

Till recently, desalination, the process of creating large quantities of fresh water from seawater, has been prohibitively expensive for many communities and nations. Of course, as conditions become more desperate, expensive remedies will need to be tried. They would add to overextended budgets, likely not a stable, long-term option. For all the talk in past years of towing icebergs to the shores of thirsty regions, such solutions are probably not cost effective. They have become problematic too because the globe's residual ice has been melting too rapidly as it is.

Fortunately, there are recent technological developments that may come to the rescue. One offering huge promise is a device with but a single moving part. It was invented by a self-employed Norwegian, Leif Hauge. The apparatus, an energy exchanger, is so useful in modern desalination that it cuts the costs of getting fresh water from saline in half. Hauge, however, may see none of the benefits. In a classic Catch-22 situation, though he persevered many years perfecting his now successful energy exchanger, he also tried the patience of his financial backers. They fired him and left him with almost no interest in the finally profitable company he created, Energy Recovery, Inc. (ERI).

ERI's (formerly Hauge's) device is only a little more than a meter in height and is shaped like a small water heater. Its single moving part is ceramic instead of metal, as this construction is more durable. It spins 1000 revolutions per minute and must stand 1000 pounds per square inch of pressure. 13,000 gallons an hour of saltwater are pumped through Huage's (ERI's) invention. It costs $25,000 and now controls over two-thirds of the energy-recovery device desalination market, many multiples of it being used in a large plant. The exchanger is roughly 96% energy efficient. Its design process permits not only cost-effective desalination but also energy savings. The technological leap has allowed ERI to be the energy exchange basis for a quickly growing number of modern desalination plants, of which 160 more super-plants (using 50 or so of the Hauge inventions and producing 13,000,000 gallons of desalinated water a day) are currently in the works.

Will Leif Hauge ever get a share in the profits that accrue to sellers and users of his invention? And will enough desalinated water be produced and distributed to avoid catastrophic consequences for many in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The chances for either do not look good at this time, but meanwhile the potential for Energy Recovery, Inc. (stock symbol: ERII) would seem to definitely be looking up.

Primary Source: The Wizard of Water. Jonathan Fahey in Forbes Magazine, Vol. 184, No. 4, pp. 94-97; September 7, 2009.

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