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NREL Launches $9 Million Solar Desalination Prize Competition

New Prize Competition Aimed at Increasing Access to Fresh Water Added to American-Made Challenges Network

April 28, 2020

A landscape graphic showing a an ocean beach, water faucet, and solar mirrors with the words "Solar Desalination Prize: Now Open"

On April 28, with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) kicked off the Solar Desalination Prize, a $9 million competition that’s part of the American-Made Challenges series.

The competition is designed to accelerate the development of systems that use solar-thermal energy to produce clean drinking water from salt water.

NREL manages each of the American-Made Challenges for the DOE.

The newest prize competition offers participants the opportunity to win up to $2.3 million in prizes and up to $200,000 in vouchers. The vouchers cover the cost of work at a national laboratory or facility in the American-Made Network to validate the desalination technology proposed by the chosen participants.

“This country has the technical knowledge, vision, and talent it takes to develop solar-powered systems that can turn water produced by industrial processes into water we can use,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette. “These innovations will not only encourage new uses for solar energy, but also help achieve this country’s clean water goals.”

Increasing access to freshwater supplies strengthens U.S. economic competitiveness and water security. Using solar-thermal desalination to clean nontraditional water sources offers a new pathway to generating water for municipal, agricultural, and industrial use.

Electricity costs account for up to half the expenses for state-of-the-art desalination plants, which have difficulty treating very-high-salinity water. Solar-thermal power, in the form of either electricity or heat, could reduce the cost of desalination from high-salinity sources, such as produced water from subsurface oil and gas extraction.

The prize is part of the American-Made Challenges Network, which aims to incentivize the nation's entrepreneurs to strengthen American leadership in energy innovation and domestic manufacturing. These new challenges seek to lower the barriers U.S.-based innovators face in reaching manufacturing scale by accelerating the cycles of learning from years to weeks, while helping to create partnerships that connect entrepreneurs to the private sector and the network.

In the first phase of the competition, participants submit innovative concepts with pathways to their manufacture and commercialization. By the end of the competition, each team will have designed a solar-thermal desalination system, obtained the necessary permitting and approval documents, built the system, and then demonstrated the operation of the system.

Submissions for the first phase are due July 16. Read the competition’s official rules for details on submissions and participant eligibility.

This prize is part of the Water Security Grand Challenge, a White House-initiated, DOE-led framework to advance transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure, and affordable water. It focuses on the Water Security Grand Challenge goal of doubling resource recovery from water resource recovery facilities by 2030. The prize is also part of DOE’s series of prizes that incentivize the nation's entrepreneurs to strengthen American leadership in energy innovation and domestic manufacturing.

NREL administers the Solar Desalination Prize through a partnership with DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office within the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Learn more about the American Made Challenges Prizes by visiting https://americanmadechallenges.org/.

Sign up to receive updates on the Solar Desalination Prize.