Pool of Entrepreneurs Compete in Water Desalination Challenge

Aug. 18, 2021

Ocean waves
From academics to entrepreneurs, diverse participants are competing in the five-stage Waves to Water Prize, designing marine energy technology that turns salty ocean water into fresh drinking water.

Many small and remote communities enjoy unique combinations of natural resources and cultural perspectives. They also tend to face specific challenges and needs, especially when it comes to accessing critical resources such as potable water.

Presently, many such communities do not hold the same equitable access to the water and energy infrastructure that more affluent regions have. To better assess, understand, and meet their needs, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is working with some of these communities to design and improve technologies capable of addressing some of the water and energy challenges they endure.

An example of this is NREL’s Sherry Stout, who has worked to ensure the sustainable recovery of Puerto Rico’s electric power grid after hurricanes Irma and María. Stout is also currently working to improve and sustain the water treatment infrastructure for small communities in Puerto Rico, like Utuado, Ciales, and Las Marías—safely managing wastewater and providing drinking water in its place. This is just one example of how NREL is working with communities to help transform their water and energy landscape.

To further expand these efforts and address the pressing challenge of water scarcity more specifically, the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) and NREL created the $3.3 million Waves to Water Prize. The prize incentivizes a diverse group of innovators to create small, modular, cost-competitive desalination systems powered by ocean waves.

During the five-stage competition, teams design marine energy technologies that use ocean waves to generate clean energy, thereby turning salty ocean water into fresh drinking water. Such inventions could help deliver clean water for global disaster relief and to remote, freshwater-scarce communities, like Nanwalek.

In February 2021, WPTO selected 10 teams as winners of the competition’s third stage, ADAPT. Each team shared a portion of the $800,000 cash prize pool and moved on to the penultimate CREATE Stage. Three of those 10 winning teams are bringing one-of-a-kind entrepreneurial skills to the table to ultimately deliver solutions that help accelerate, expand, and evolve what is possible for marine energy by introducing new, flexible, responsive, and easy-to-deploy wave-powered desalination systems. 

Three Competing Teams Wet Their Feet in the Wave Energy Arena

One competing team, called Project 816, is made up of engineers and test pilots from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. This team is diving headfirst into exploring wave energy technologies, designing the Ballast, Buoys, and Borrowing From Archimedes System. (Archimedes, a famous classical mathematician, invented a device that raises water, known as the Archimedes screw, which is still used today.) Their device can be deployed by just two people with common equipment, basic tools, and in a variety of site conditions. Built with commercial, off-the-shelf components, an inflatable, raft-based wave energy converter, which sits on a nearby pier, powers their desalination system.

In the CREATE Stage, Project 816 is focusing on increasing the amount of kinetic energy their wave energy converter can capture. The team is also improving their device’s ability to adapt to variable current and tidal conditions. Once these improvements are complete, the team will be ready to deploy a full-scale prototype and test their system in the ocean.

Another team, Sea Potential, brings together entrepreneurs from Sea Potential LLC, a Maine-based organization that focuses on building diversity in marine science, and three partners from Ireland, Pure Marine Gen, Colloide Engineering Systems Ltd, and Marine Systems Inc. The team’s inflatable DUO Wave Powered Desalination System captures energy using a hydraulic cylinder (which uses liquid instead of air or electricity to power mechanics). Then, the device pumps seawater through a reverse-osmosis membrane that extracts salt and other impurities to produce drinkable water.

During the CREATE Stage, Sea Potential is improving DUO’s design to capture a larger amount of power. The team is also making the device’s hydraulic circuit more efficient at producing more drinking water. At the same time, Sea Potential is researching how DUO’s design can be adapted for different markets and users.

Engineers from a third team, Surge Seeker & Water Duck, come from California companies IPro Tech LLC and Spectra Watermakers. The team submitted three different device designs in the ADAPT Stage. After moving to the CREATE Stage, they focused their efforts on the Water Duck. To improve and simplify their device, the team is shifting from a hydraulic to an all-electrical power take-off system, which transfers energy from a power source (generator) to an application by pushing water through a membrane. In the CREATE Stage, team Water Duck is also building a land-based rig system that mimics ocean conditions and allows them to test and refine their design from on shore.

Countdown to the Final Competition

Up to seven CREATE Stage winners will receive part of the $500,000 cash prize pool and move to the final stage of the competition, DRINK. Then, they will have 180 days to build and ship their systems to Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, North Carolina.

The Coastal Studies Institute, part of the University of North Carolina system, and Jennette’s Pier have partnered with WPTO and NREL to host the prize finalists in North Carolina in April 2022. The pier will serve as the competitors’ main test site where judges will assess how their final designs perform during a five-day, open-ocean trial.

Competitors are receiving support from prize sponsors, including Janicki Industries, a full-service engineering and manufacturing company who is consulting with teams on how to manufacture their designs. Teams can also work with the International Desalination Association, which is connecting them with the desalination community and provides access to technical training seminars. Engineering for Change is providing additional support through mentor recruitment and training materials.

This spotlight article series features competitors from academia, industry, and practiced participants who have moved on to the next-to-last stage of this year’s Waves to Water Prize. Learn more about the various Waves to Water ADAPT Stage winners in past articles. You can also follow competition news and progress on Twitter @AMCprizes, and learn more about NREL’s water power and water treatment research online.