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Startup's Desalination Tech Could Supply the World with 97% More Water

In the weeks leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 4th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will get to know our 11 semi-finalists. Today, meet Okeanos.

Access to fresh water is something many in the developed world take for granted, but recent droughts in places such as California serve to remind us just how precious the natural resource is. In California, the drought has become so severe that Governor Jerry Brown recently issued his second emergency drought proclamation in three months, calling for residents to avoid washing their cars, watering their lawns and even accepting glasses of water in restaurants if they are not thirsty.

It must be incredibly frustrating to Governor Brown that his state rests next to the Pacific Ocean — the largest body of water on Earth — when all of that water cannot help alleviate the crisis. It is a global conundrum — though 70 percent of the planet’s surface is covered with water, less than 1 percent is fresh water we can actually use; two percent is locked up in glacier ice at the North and South Poles; and roughly 97 percent is saltwater.

With the planet’s relatively miniscule supply of fresh water dwindling, it seems logical to explore how to make abundant saltwater drinkable. In fact, we already know how to do this through a process called desalination, where salt and other minerals are removed from saline water to produce fresh water suitable for human consumption or irrigation. Desalination already is widely used on many seagoing ships and submarines.

However, desalination currently is too energy- and capital-intensive to be practical in the mainstream. As it stands, the total water costs of desalination are significantly greater than those associated with harvesting surface or underground fresh water sources. Most modern desalination technologies use a handful of energy-greedy processes that are ultimately dependent on the combustion of fossil fuels.

According to Okeanos, this form of energy is called an “electrochemical field gradient” and using it to do the “work” of desalination is advantageous because this work is limited by electron- rather than ion-transfer kinetics, making it far more efficient than those processes that function in the dimensions of space you are used to thinking about — such as reverse osmosis, electrodialysis or heat/evaporation-based methods.

“Okeanos is a rare example of a transformative and disruptive technology that has the power to touch so many lives in so short a time frame,” said Tony Frudakis, Ph.D., CEO and chairman of Okeanos. “Millions of people are dying each year around the world due to lack of access to safe drinking waters. Desalination solves their problem, but is currently grid-tethered due to high energy demands, and extending grid infrastructures to the underserved in the developing world is not practical. Our desalination technology is so energy-efficient, it will be operational on alternative energy sources and as such, directly relevant to solving this problem.”

Water is one of those things we literally can’t live without, and a lack of access to fresh water results in many of the world’s problems — political, economic, environmental, and humanitarian. Through technologies such as Okeanos’, we may be able to ensure that no one goes thirsty ever again.

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