University of Nebraska-Lincoln
This map shows uranium levels in groundwater throughout the U.S. The highest levels are in red.
Ongoing water shortages around the world, along with recent drought conditions in the western United States, have resulted in a flood of new research and proposals around water technology. We take a look at some concepts -- from simple to complex to rather ancient -- that are designed to help us collect, store, transport and even create water where it's needed most.
The severe drought in California -- now in its third year -- has triggered new interest in a relatively old technology. Desalination plants turn seawater into drinking water by way of high pressure valves and semi-permeable membranes. Traditionally an expensive and energy-intensive process, recent innovations have made desalination a more viable option. The city of Carlsbad, Calif., is set to open the biggestocean desalination plant
in the Western Hemisphere later this year.
IBM Research and Airlight Energy via Flickr
Desalination plants are efficient, relatively speaking, but they're not very pretty. A couple years back, IBM and Airlight Energy turned heads with theirHigh Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal
(HCPVT) system, designed to generate solar power and desalinate water at the same time. The sunflower-shaped solar collectors use a liquid cooling system that could potentially double as a small-scale desalination plant, providing both energy and water for apartment buildings, hotels or hospitals.
California Dept. of Water Resources
Water recycling is the umbrella term for reuse and reclamation systems that involve treating wastewater and returning it to underground aquifers or reservoirs. Along with desalination, it's among the existing technologies being optimized for large-scale use. San Diego'sPure Water
project, for example, treats wastewater with three different techniques -- membrane filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection -- before piping the recycled water back into reservoirs.
UTEC / YouTube
One nice thing is that water generating systems tend to scale down nicely. ThisAir Orchard
water-harvesting billboard in Lima, Peru, uses dehumidifiers to pull moisture out of the atmosphere. Then a drip irrigation system waters the adjacent garden, producing more than 2.500 heads of lettuce per week. The billboard was built by -- and advertises -- Lima's University of Engineering and Technology.
UTEC / YouTube
The Air Orchard is just one of several clever self-advertising projects the university has built to advocate engineering solutions to environmental issues. Thispotable water generator
also pulls moisture from the air -- Lima's average humidity is around 80 percent year-round -- and turns it into drinkable water provided by a dispenser at the base.
AgainErick / Wikimedia Commons
Lima is the kind of town that doesn't mess around. As the second largest desert city in the world (behind Cairo), it has faced water problems for centuries. A new initiative by the city's water utility plans torevive ancient stone canals
to bring water down from rivers in the Andes. It's something of a fixer-upper project: The canals were built by pre-Incan civilizations between 500 and 1,000 AD.
The concept of harvesting water with fog nets has been around a long time and some ambitious large-scale projects have been tested across the globe, most notably inChile
. A few years back, German design student Imke Hoehler proposed a design for portable and collapsible tent-like fog nets that could potentially harvest up to 20 liters of water per day under the right conditions.
Shigeru Yamanaka/Shinshu University
Then there are the research projects that getreally, really small.
In March, a team of Japanese scientists proposed studying the microscopic workings of certain moisture-gathering plants to design the next generation of water collection systems. Electron microscope imagery reveals that such plants use cone shaped hairs to catch and store water, then change shape release the moisture in dry conditions. The team hopes advanced fiber technology could essentially replicate the process.
Simon & Shuster
Global droughts and water shortages can seem like terrifying, insurmountable problems. But fear not. As with so many things in this world, William Shatner has our back. The actor andsci-fi author
recently proposed a plan to pipe water from the Pacific Northwest to arid sections of California by way of -- well, the details arestill fuzzy
. But long-distance water pipelines have astoried history
in the U.S. and several new projects are in various stages of proposal. And let it never be said that Shatner doesn't follow through: He recently launched theShatner Water
website, dedicated to exploring the issue.
Omniprocessor via Youtube and Thinkstock
Designed and built by the Washington-based engineering firm, Janicki Bioenergy, the very official-sounding Omniprocessor S100 uses heat from sludge to make water. A trial run is underway in Dakar, Senegal, where the machine -- which has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- is processing sewage from a community of about 100,000 people. The sewage is first heated intensely to dry it and then during the process, the water vapor is captured, heavily processed and turned into drinking water.
Groundwater in two of the nation’s major aquifers is contaminated with natural uranium that may pose a health risk to millions of people in the Great Plains and California, according to a new study.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers, who examined data from groundwater samples in the High Plains and Central Valley aquifers, found that nearly two million Americans live less than two-thirds of a mile from wells that exceed–often by a lot–the uranium limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, also found that human activity is largely to blame. In 78 percent of the sampled sites, the high uranium levels were linked to the presence of nitrate, a common groundwater contaminant that results from use of chemical fertilizers and animal waste in agriculture.
Through a series of bacterial and chemical reactions, the nitrate combines the uranium and makes it soluble in groundwater.
In the High Plains aquifer, some water samples contained as much as 89 times the EPA’s acceptable level of uranium. In the Central Valley, the highest readings were 34 times the EPA limit.
Though we’re used to thinking of uranium as a radioactive fuel for nuclear reactors or raw material for bombs, in its natural, unprocessed state, it is commonly found in tiny amounts in rock, soil, plants and water and has only a low level of radioactivity. Nevertheless, when safe levels are exceeded, its chemical properties pose a health risk to humans, particularly when it is ingested in drinking water.
“It needs to be recognized that uranium is a widespread contaminant,” said UNL researcher Karrie Weber, an assistant professor of biological, Earth and atmospheric sciences, who co-authored the study with graduate student Jason Nolan.
“And we are creating this problem by producing a primary contaminant that leads to a secondary one.”