In spite of the technological age we live in it is reported that one-in-five people on this planet still don’t have access to clean drinking water. To help correct this imbalance, a new, energy-efficient desalination plant with an expected production capacity of 30,000 cubic meters per day will be built in the city of Al Khafji, Saudi Arabia, to serve its 100,000 people. Known more for its computers, IBM has joined forces with KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology) to build the plant that will be powered by ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic (UHCPV) technology - a system with a concentration greater than 1,500 suns.

According to KACST scientists, the two most commonly used methods for seawater desalination are thermal technology and reverse osmosis. Both methods are high energy users with costs ranging from 2.5 to 5.5 Saudi Riyals per cubic meter (around US$1.50). So the IBM-KACST team is also working to improve nanomembrane technology that filters out salts as well as potentially harmful toxins in water while using less energy than other forms of water purification. The organizations say that by combining solar power with the new nanomembrane, they will be able to significantly reduce the cost of desalinating seawater at these plants.

Chlorine used in reverse osmosis to remove salt and other harmful chemicals from sea water breaks down the membranes that are used for filtration and, over time, the membranes are fouled by unwanted organic and biological molecules and particles. So researchers from IBM and KACST developed chlorine-resistant and fouling-resistant polymers that increase the permeability of the membranes without sacrificing selectivity.

IBM and KACST are also working together to develop a solar concentrator system by adapting IBM’s microprocessor cooling technology that, when combined with other initiatives, will hopefully bring down the cost of photovoltaics for producing solar energy.

“Currently, Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world, and we continue to invest in new ways of making access to fresh water more affordable,” said Dr Turki Al Saud, vice president for research institutes, KACST. “Water has the first priority in the Science, Technology and Innovation Plan of the Kingdom, overseen by KACST.”

IBM says that the Saudi's goal is to ramp up the number of desalination plants in order to provide fresh water for one million people in the coming years.

The team says that because more than 97 percent of the world’s water is in the oceans, turning salt water into fresh water cost effectively and energy efficiently offers tremendous potential for addressing the growing worldwide demand for clean water, which is growing faster than the population rate.

“Our collaborative research with KACST has led to innovative technologies in the areas of solar power and of water desalination,” said Sharon Nunes, vice president, IBM Big Green Innovations. “Using these new technologies, we will create energy-efficient systems we believe can be implemented across Saudi Arabia and around the world.”

In February 2008, IBM and KACST signed a multi-year collaborative research agreement, under which scientists from IBM and KACST work side by side at IBM Research labs in New York and California as well as at the KACST/IBM Nanotechnology Center of Excellence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The IBM and Saudi researchers plan to start work on a pilot plant utilizing the technology later this year with a view to eventually providing an economical means of producing clean water in parts of the world where it is needed.