Bill Nye: Solar-Powered Desalination 'Could Be Key to the Future'
Desalinating seawater has been hailed as the solution to addressing freshwater scarcity, but the technology has yet to be scaled. Big Think, which bills itself as a "knowledge forum," hosts a series, Tuesdays With Bill Nye, where viewers ask Nye questions about a range of popular topics. This Tuesday, Nye answered a question from a young girl in Minnesota who wanted to know if we can desalinate water for human consumption on a massive scale.
"Desalination of water could be the key to the future for so many of us humans," Nye said, explaining how desalination plants utilize reverse osmosis to remove salt from seawater. Researchers are in the process of developing new technologies right now, he continued.
Many places around the world already use the technology, Nye noted. "This is done all the time. It's done in Australia at several industrial-scale, citywide installations ... Carlsbad, California has one. And cruise chips and I guess the U.S. Navy exploit this technology all the time," Nye said.
So, he's very optimistic that we "are living at a time where this breakthrough may be made on an industrial scale," and he believes it could even be powered by renewables.
"We could have all the clean water we wanted for everybody all over the world and we would power the pumps with solar power, regular old photovoltaic solar cells, and when the sun is not shining you don't pump the water," Nye explained.
"So you pump the water when the sun is shining and and you fill up reservoirs all over the world. And so humankind could—if this stuff works out—it could have access to clean water for the billions of us that need it."
Critics argue the technology is too expensive and too energy-intensive to be adopted on a massive scale. Take, for example, the Carlsbad, California desalination plant that Nye mentioned. The plant, which came online at the end of last year, is the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
But the water from the plant "costs 80 percent more than San Diego pays for water outside the county, and even though the plant is huge, it can only meet 10 percent of San Diego's needs," Julian Huguet from Discovery News explained. "And it will use a lot energy ... making it more a small puzzle piece than the ultimate solution to California's drought."
Still, California and other water-stressed regions of the world, particularly the Gulf region, are rushing to develop energy-efficient desalination plants. About a dozen desalination plants are being proposed in California.
Worldwide, there are already an estimated 15,000–20,000 desalination plants producing more than 20,000 cubic meters of water per day. Places as varied as Aruba, Chile and Algeria all use desalination.
Israel already supplies 40 percent of its drinking water from desalination. That number is projected to climb to 70 percent by 2050.
Forward-thinking companies are working on solar-powered desalination plants. French engineering company Mascara is developing a desalination plant that is powered by off-grid, rooftop solar in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The plant is the fifth desalination demonstration project from Masdar, which is currently running a pilot program to test renewably powered desalination plants in the United Arab Emirates. The group hopes to have a facility at commercial scale by 2020.
Developers in Saudi Arabia are currently building the world’s first utility scale, solar-powered desalination plant, which is projected to be online by early 2017. And Monsson Group announced last week it will launch a fully automated and remote controlled desalination plant powered by renewables in Qatar.
Watch the Big Think video of Tuesdays With Bill Nye here:
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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