A recent story on how Saudi Arabia plans to use solar energy to power its water desalination plants is short on details and just plain confusing in some places with sentences such as: “The new nanotechnology for using solar energy to operate desalination plants was developed by KACST in association with IBM.”I suspect what is meant by the above sentence is that they intend to use photovoltaics somehow enabled by nanotechnology to power their desalination plants. Despite the rather awkward syntax, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is intent on using nanotechnology to both help them meet their energy needs and provide their fresh water. Two of the most critical shortages mankind faces today are water and energy. Nano-enabled processes have demonstrated some promise in easing the water issue and nanotechnology and energy seems to be the proverbial carrot to relieve our dependence on fossil fuels. However, only a handful of companies have had any success in bringing these solutions to market.
With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sitting on top of the largest easily accessible oil reserves in the world, it has been one of the only countries that could actually afford the enormous cost of water desalination, which ranges between $0.5 to $0.85 per cubic meter. So it is with some irony that this blogger notes that the Kingdom appears to be one of the few countries to seriously approach the use of solar energy to address their water shortage.With the Ogallala Aquifer continuing its headlong course towards depletion maybe water shortages, and even resulting food shortages, will be another impetus in addition to expensive energy costs for applying the technologies out there, including nanotechnology, that sit unused and undeveloped as the status quo is meticulously maintained.
Andrew Maynard is in Davos this week meeting with the World Economic Forum folks who depend on plugging the term “technology” into their cure-alls for the world. Maybe while he’s there trying to get these folks to understand that technological innovation can’t be plucked from a tree he can add that maybe someone should actually try using the technology we already have. It seems as though Saudi Arabia is doing it.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.