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Making salty water potable is complex, but Many, La., firm is trying to solve it

GWI Desalination Report

A worldwide competition to invent an affordable water desalination system that would support a farm family in the developing world is down to eight semifinalists, including the company Suns River of Many, Louisiana. 

The editor of the weekly Water Desalination Report, Tom Pankratz, says the key question in the Desal Prize created by the U.S. Agency for International Development is whether it will spark innovation.

“There are a lot of people doing a lot of research on many different desalination processes,” Pankratz said. “In fact, Suns River has already done a fair amount of testing in New Mexico to try to optimize its process.”

Suns River founder Hill Kemp began tinkering with his solar still process seven years ago. Since then, the 74-year-old earned two federal grants to improve his technology at a research facility in New Mexico. Now, he hopes to win the $250,000 grand prize that would lay the groundwork for his business.

“I take it now as a calling. There are a lot of people who are drinking water that are killing themselves because of the crud that’s in it,” Kemp said. “Here in Louisiana, we’ve got lots of water -- lakes all over the place. But when you get out in the desert you realize water is extremely precious.”

The Desal Prize hypothetical scenario -- to produce 2,100 gallons of clean water a day using only renewable energy -- may not be the biggest obstacle. Pankratz wonders what scientists will do about the salty waste byproduct.

“That’s part of the problem with this prize. You’re talking about a small farmer with a small piece of property. And he’s got to figure out what to do in that small piece of property. Maybe it’s to send that water to an evaporation pond. You keep adding water to that pond day after day, and after a period of time you’re left with salt,” Pankratz said.

The semifinalists must submit a video of their working prototype by January. They’ll demonstrate their technology in New Mexico in the spring. Up to three will be chosen to install their system on land in the Jordanian desert.

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