Changing the Water Distribution Model

By Kelsey Maloney

A recent picture of Lake Mead

A recent picture of Lake Mead

If you’ve ever been to the Hoover Dam, you know that a picture just doesn’t do justice to its actual size. Here’s a fun fact: the Hoover Dam stands at 726 ft., a whopping 171 ft. taller than the Washington Monument. Although the Hoover Dam is a sight in itself, Lake Mead is nothing short of spectacular. On a recent trip there, I was surprised to see the striking mineral lines along the rock walls, a clear indicator that water levels were once significantly higher. It’s a stark reminder that areas in the United States, such as the Southwest, are increasingly facing water challenges, including droughts.

Through the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), EPA is helping investigators from small businesses develop new technologies that can help change the water distribution model, putting less stress on freshwater resources (for example, Lake Mead). Researchers are looking towards desalination, a process that treats brackish (slightly salty) and seawater to turn it into usable freshwater.

Okeanos Technologies, a recipient of one of EPA’s SBIR awards, is developing and testing a new technology that they believe is more efficient than the conventional desalination processes.  The researchers believe that this new energy-efficient seawater desalination technology could provide “clean, cheap and plentiful water for everyone, anywhere.” Instead of using large conventional desalination plants, they are developing a microdevice that can desalinate water more efficiently. The technology will cut costs to a point where desalination can take place off-grid, allowing it to be used where it’s needed most.

Another business— Physical Optics Corporation, also a recipient of an EPA SBIR award—is developing a novel, cost-effective desalination system that will enable small water systems to include lower quality source water at their intake, further reducing the demand of ground and surface water supplies. The system is based on a portable desalinator unit that can convert brackish water and seawater into quality drinking water. Because of its size, the unit can not only be used to transform the intakes of small systems, but also in places where freshwater is unavailable.

Many challenges continue to threaten the quality and quantity of our drinking water resources, but through these two projects, we’re moving another step closer to expanding our drinking water sources.

To learn more about the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR), visit:


About the Author: Kelsey Maloney is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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