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Going with the Flow: Using Tech to Manage and Protect Dwindling Water Supplies

IBM touts new technology to help water utilities deliver a purer product
water, IBM, Clarkson



© Ted Kawalerski

An estimated one billion people currently do not have access to safe drinking water, and nearly half of the world's population will live in places with water shortages, according to a new United Nations report. In an effort to protect current water supplies and find new ones, scientists, politicians and environmentalists are huddling this week at the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. Top on their agenda: new technology that holds the promise of protecting natural water habitats from pollution as well as tech that purifies current water systems better and helps tap into new potential sources of drinking water.

It has been difficult for researchers to analyze the data information about marine habitats and react quickly to changing conditions. "You cannot adequately protect and manage water unless you can assess how that water is reacting to conditions in real time," says John Cronin, director and chief executive officer of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. This New York State–based environmental research organization since 2004 has studied wildlife in and on the banks of the Hudson River as well as the toll development has taken on the 315-mile (500-Kilometer) waterway, which runs south from the Adirondacks to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Beacon Institute and Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y, last year launched a $300,000 solar-powered 20-foot (six-meter) by nine-foot (2.7-meter) floating pontoon platform in the Hudson to measure and assess its water quality. The way it works: the platform lowers a canister containing 15 different sensors into the river and uses an onboard computer to collect data—depth, salinity, temperature and other readings—about the water and wirelessly send that data to the River and Estuary Observatory Network (REON), a high-performance computing system managed by IBM. REON, located at Beacon Institute's Center for Environmental Innovation and Education (CEIE) in Beacon, N.Y., will collect, sort, analyze and graphically display information about the river, making it available to Beacon Institute and Clarkson researchers as well as those studying marine environments worldwide. The floating platform allows the researchers to collect data using the canister at various points all along the river.

Cronin says the ability to efficiently manage water systems is crucial and will become even more so over the next few decades. "The rate at which our water resources on the planet are increasing is zero," he says, "while our population grows at a wild rate." The Beacon Institute is planning to add two more pontoon platforms—as well as nine similar but smaller platforms—to different points along the river over the next 18 months, Cronin says.

Other researchers and government organizations elsewhere in the world are also turning to sensors to learn more about the bodies of water in their care. IBM since July has been working with the Marine Institute Ireland, a national agency for marine research and development, to monitor wave conditions, marine life and pollution levels in and around Galway Bay. Among the goals of this so-called SmartBay project: to allow commercial anglers to share information about problems such as floating physical hazards in the bay and, also, to reduce the time it takes to acquire data to test wave energy converter prototypes for renewable electricity generation, potentially speeding the delivery of wave-generated electricity to the general market.

On the drinking-water front, researchers from IBM, Central Glass, Ltd., of Japan, the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia, and the University of Texas at Austin are developing a new type of membrane that is resistant to damage by chlorine (the chemical most often used prevent bacterial growth in water supplies) and designed to filter out salts and harmful toxins in water such as arsenic (long-term exposure of which has been linked to cancer and other ailments) potentially creating new sources of drinking water.

"You need to use chlorine to kill bacteria and other organisms during water purification, but chlorine violently attacks polymers," says Bob Allen, manager of a water purification project at the IBM Almaden Research Center. The membrane under development uses fluorine materials that respond to pH levels in the water. Higher pH, between eight and 10, triggers the membrane's filtration material, 200 nanometers thick (one nanometer equals 40 millionths of an inch), to become more porous, allowing water to pass through at a much faster rate while trapping salt (for desalinization) and contaminants such as arsenic (which becomes ionic at such a high pH and thereby easier for the filter to separate out).

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