A ream of roughly a dozen researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder will have a key role in a major federal initiative to improve water security in the United States.

It was announced this week that CU Boulder is part of the Energy-Water Desalination Hub established by the U.S. Department of Energy, which will commit $100 million over five years to focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and competitive desalination technologies including manufacturing challenges and for treating non-traditional water resources.

The Energy-Water Desalination Hub is the result of years of development and planning by the National Alliance for Water Innovation, of which CU Boulder is a founding member.

Courtesy photo

Karl Linden

The alliance is headquartered at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, the National Energy Technology Laboratory plus 10 founding industry partners and 19 founding university partners, as well as CU Boulder.

Its goal is to advance a portfolio of novel technologies that will secure a circular water economy in which 90% of nontraditional water sources can be cost-competitive with existing water sources within 10 years.

“By focusing R&D efforts on advancing transformational technologies that promote cost-effective desalination, we are working toward meeting the national and global need for secure, affordable water,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said, in originally announcing the nation’s Water Security Grand Challenge late last year.

Coordinating CU Boulder’s contributions will be Karl Linden, a professor of Environmental Engineering and the Mortenson Professor in Sustainable Development.

“We are part of the core team, and in the first year, we’re going to develop the research themes and the roadmap for the program,” Linden said on Wednesday. “In the first year, there won’t be much research. It will all be involved in setting the stage for the research we want to do, based on the evidence we have at present.”

Linden said the team involved at the project at CU Boulder currently includes 11 researchers, and will leverage partnerships with NREL, the Colorado School of Mines, and likely the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder. And probably more.

“One of the other things about our team is that we want to really figure out a way to bring in expertise where expertise is needed,” Linden said. “If someone else at this university or another university has ideas, we will include those and bring them to the team.

“The original (CU Boulder) team part of it will have a say in the roadmapping and the framing of the research, and will have first entry into the research process. But we’re not going to exclude them at all. We’re going to figure out a way to bring them in.”

While $100 million from DOE is in the coffers for the overall effort in the next five years, it’s not certain how much of that will land in Boulder. It will be spread out among all the program’s partners, which includes “really good company,” Linden said, such as Stanford and Yale universities and the universities of Texas and California-Berkeley.

“I would say between, or on the order of, half a million to $1 million a year,” is what CU Boulder itself might be awarded, Linden said. “It really depends on the types of projects that will be selected, after the roadmapping process.”

CU Boulder’s contributions will build upon work that has already been undertaken by the Water-Energy Nexus Interdisciplinary Research Theme in the university’s College of Engineering, which brings together researchers from different disciplines to address the challenges surrounding water, energy and associated systems such as food, land, air quality and climate.

In addition to whatever funding comes to CU Boulder from the DOE, Linden said his role as director of the Water-Energy Nexus Interdisciplinary Research Theme provides him with funds to pass to CU Boulder faculty for seed grants in “the water-energy space.”

“Many of those are well aligned with those that will be part of the hub’s research interests, so in this way we can leverage that support from CU to position our faculty to submit innovative proposals for hub research,” he said.

Linden said he believes while the broader alliance members’ work will certainly include alternatives to reverse osmosis for the desalination of sea water, other areas of focus will be methods for the re-use of urban stormwater, wastewater and agricultural runoff, all with the goal of reducing demand on stressed freshwater supplies. The oil and gas sector will be involved as well.

“Our track record working in water sustainability in the oil and gas industry over the past six years, also in collaboration with faculty at the Colorado School of Mines and the partnerships we have with that industry, will position us well”  to address research needs in the water-energy space under the project’s umbrella, he said.

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