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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - We can't live without it. Much of the world doesn't have enough. And most of what we do have, we can't use.
The "it," of course, is water -- and to satisfy this most fundamental of human needs, more and more countries -- and even some communities in New England -- are increasingly looking to the ocean to produce fresh water. Large-scale desalination technology is transforming parts of the Middle East, making desert areas habitable and farmable, and providing some or all of the water 300 million people globally drink, according to the International Desalination Association. But while costs have come way down in past decades, desalination of ocean water comes at the cost of enormous power demand to boil or electrically treat sea water through osmosis to get rid of the salt.
On Thursday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino came to the Boston Marine Industrial Park to welcome a company with a whole new approach to desalination, Osmotic Application Systems, or Oasys, and to drink a couple of glasses of water the company made from Massachusetts ocean water. "Tastes good," declared the mayor.
What Oasys has invented after years of work is what it calls a much lower cost, much less energy intensive way to desalinate water compared to what's out there now. It uses salty water fortified with ammonium salts and a complex membrane system to essentially pull the salts out of ocean water, yielding about 75 to 85 gallons of drinkable water for every 100 gallons brought in, according to company chief technology officer Rob McGinnis.
Demonstrating a series of devices, McGinnis explained that "the seawater will flow in from one to the next to the next to the next and come out'' in a drinkable form, in fact, so clean it needs to have small amounts of chemical salts added back in to make it taste right. "It never changed into steam, just water the whole time, and it comes out pure. These membranes block everything that isn't water from going through. No salts, no suspended particles,'' McGinnis said, and at "one tenth of the fuel use of traditional desalination methods.''
The company plans to come to market commercially next year, and all indications are demand for this kind of technology is huge. According to United Nations estimates, about 880 million people around the world have no access to safe water. Of course, 97 percent of all earth's water is salty, just 3 percent naturally fresh. IDA estimates that 15,180 desalination plants are now in service worldwide, up from 14,451 in 2009, producing 17 billion gallons a day. Lux Research estimates total desalination production of water will reach triple 2008 levels by 2020.
The mayor loves that Oasys came to the South Boston Waterfront to set up shop, not Cambridge or the suburbs. "Our innovation district is a great home for 'cleantech' companies,'' Menino said. "Cleantech companies are growing even in these tough economic times.''
Oasys CEO and cofounded Aaron Mandell hopes this now-15-person Boston company will do something huge. "It's very simple. It's to have a global impact on reducing the cost of water production by reducing the energy,'' Mandell said.
Executives at Oasys said they looked all over New England for good research and development and lab space before settling on the Tide Street location, where it's enar other green-energy companies like SatCon, FastCap Systems and energy-efficiency provider Next Step Living. Thanks to pioneering companies like Ionics of Watertown, Mass., which is now part of General Electric, Boston is widely considered to be one of the top three cities in the nation for water technology, along with San Diego and Minneapolis -- San Diego because California has insatiable needs for fresh water and limited supplies available from the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River, and Minneapolis for specialized plastic membrane expertise.
But while Oasys is right on Boston Harbor, it doesn't plan to use harbor water for its feedstock. The reason? Because of the freshwater Charles and Mystic Rivers draining into the inner harbor, Boston Harbor water has much less salinity that normal ocean water. Oasys scientists don't want to give themselves any break or make the challenge easier, so they truck in full-strength ocean salt water from elsewhere in Massachusetts, the kind vendors sell to grocery stores for lobster tanks, to use to perfect their desalination technology.
With videographer John J. Hammann