A collaborative research project is underway to build a water desalination plant powered by solar electricity to reduce water and energy costs.

IBM, Armonk, N.Y., and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, have begun a research collaboration to create a water desalination plant powered by solar electricity. Once complete, the plant could significantly reduce water and energy costs.

The desalination plant will be built in the city of Al Khafji to serve 100,000 people. Plans are to power the plant with ultra-high concentrator photovoltaic technology developed jointly by IBM and KACST. The technology is capable of operating a concentrated photovoltaics system at a concentration greater than 1,500 suns. Inside the plant, the desalination process will hinge on another IBM-KACST jointly developed technology, a nanomembrane that filters out potentially harmful toxins in water and salt while using less energy than other forms of water purification.

“Currently, Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world,” says Dr. Turki Al Saud, vice president for research institutes at KACST. One of the most efficient means of desalination is reverse osmosis, but obstacles exist, principally bio-fouling, degradation by chlorine and low flux challenges, he says.

In 2008, IBM and KACST signed a multi-year collaborative research agreement, under which scientists from both organizations work together.