As Texas continues to grapple with major water shortages, and a lot of areas around San Antonio are imposing unprecedented water use restrictions in the face of the third year of drought, a University of Texas researcher is working on ways to give Texas an unlimited source of water, by doing what people have dreamed of doing for thousands of years.
Dr. Richard Crooks, a professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UT Austin, is working on ways to remove the salt from large quantities of salt water so humans and animals can drink it. Desalination has been done on a small scale, like the brackish water desalination experiment being conducted by the San Antonio Water System, but Crooks is trying to perfect a system to use electromagnetic fields to remove the salt from the water.
"There's lots and lots of water down in the Gulf, so if you can find a way to remove the salt from water for a reasonable energy cost, you're really ahead of the game," he said.
While efforts to remove the salt from small amounts of water have been moderately successful, larger projects have had a larger problem---it takes so much energy to remove salt from large water sources that the project is impractical.
Crooks says his project has gotten to the point where about half of the salt in salt water can be removed, but he says there are a lot of applications where water is being used in large quantities today where water at fifty percent salination would be useful...freeing up fresh water for human and animal consumption.
"Maybe something which is fifty percent desalinated would work okay for fracking," he said. "And there is also a lot of water used in these cooling towers down in Houston."
Rather than chemicals or special salt-removing membranes, which have been used in a limited scope in the past, Crooks' system uses a battery powered microchip to electronically separate the salt from the water.
He says to be commercially viable, 99% of the salt has to be removed from any water source.
Crooks says the U.T system has applied for a patent on his system, and he is excited about the possibilities.
"But we clearly have a long ways to go," he said.