Desalination Pilot Project Harnesses Solar Power

June 26, 2012

Renewable Water Technologies LLC is developing a new seawater desalination process that uses less energy than conventional methods. Project engineer Riley McGivern, shown at RWT’s Kakaako facility, says the pilot project’s objective is to show that such a system can work in a real-world setting.

On a sun-soaked patch of gravel in Kakaako a small group of entrepreneurs are pioneering technology that uses solar energy to turn salt water into fresh water.

The work being done by Renewable Water Technologies is early in the research and development process, but the company’s founders say it has the potential to be scaled up for commercial applications.

Much of seawater desalination done in Hawaii and elsewhere is accomplished through reverse osmosis, a relatively energy-intensive process that removes the salt and other solids from water by forcing it through a membrane under high pressure.

By comparison, RWT’s technology uses solar thermal collectors to heat the water and remove the salt through a humidification-dehumidification (HDH) process. The company’s pilot project features solar panels similar to those found in home rooftop water heating systems. The company is installing photovoltaic panels that will power the low-wattage pumps needed to move the water through the system.

“It is designed to be modularized and deployable,” said John Chock, one of the company’s principals. “That’s the way the business will grow. Our business model is to produce small-scale, solar-powered desalination systems.”

Potential customers include the military and oceanfront hotels, Chock said.

RWT will hold an open house at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Kakaako facility, 40 Ahui St.

Chock teamed up with University of Hawaii School of Engineering professor Weilin Qu and his former student Riley McGivern to form RWT in late 2010. The company’s technology is adapted from work Qu and McGivern did in a UH laboratory. RWT placed second in the 2011 UH Business Plan Competition.

RWT’s technology is particularly attractive in a place like Hawaii, where there are limits to the amount of fresh water that can be pumped from aquifers and high energy costs make other forms of desalination expensive, Qu said.

The output of the Kakaako pilot project so far has been limited to a few gallons an hour as the water samples are tested to make sure the system is meeting its benchmarks, McGivern said.

The objective is to show that such a system can work in a real-world setting, said McGivern, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UH. “It’s a stand-alone system. A lot of this is proof of concept,” said McGivern, 25.

RWT is being funded by the Hawaii Technology Development Venture, a project administered by the Pacific International Center for High Technology Research that receives funding from the Office of Naval Research. The site near the Children’s Discovery Center is being provided by the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

Qu received an initial $50,000 grant from the Hawaii Technology Development Venture in 2009 with renewable energy company Sopogy Inc. as his corporate partner. Based on success in the lab, RWT was formed and received $300,000 in funding under a contract with the Hawaii Technology Development Venture to do the Kakaako pilot project. Oceanit Laboratories Inc. is RWT’s partner under the contract.

Chock, the former head of the state-run Hawaii Strategic Development Corp., said RWT is an example of what new UH-Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple referred to when he emphasized the need to make a greater effort to maximize the school’s income potential.

“We have some very good technology coming out of university research that often doesn’t reach the commercial stage because the typical professor doesn’t have the necessary entrepreneurial skills,” Chock said. Projects like RWT show that local research and development has the potential to be successfully commercialized, he said.

The University of Hawaii has not fared well in terms of generating licensing revenue from spending on research. UH received $256 million in research money in fiscal 2010 and took in $107,702 in licensing income, according to the latest data from the Association of University Technology Managers.

A 2010 report by the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development acknowledged the school’s shortcomings in generating revenue from its R&D efforts.

The report, prepared for UH President M.R.C. Greenwood, said “there is much room for improvement” within university’s technology transfer office, which was established in 1989 and reorganized in 2000.

Among the challenges facing the office are establishing new relationships between the school and outside investor groups and entrepreneurs, according to the report. Officials also must work to change the culture of the school by “hiring and supporting entrepreneurial faculty and rewarding their efforts to move promising scientific developments into broader use for the benefit of society,” according to the report.

Palm Springs Air Museum to adopt cutting-edge A/C

June 8, 2012

Palm Springs Air Museum to adopt cutting-edge A/C

Innovative setup uses hot water for air conditioning


The vintage World War II airplanes at the Palm Springs Air Museum will soon have a cutting-edge solar thermal air conditioning system to keep them cool, run almost entirely by hot water.

The technology, called micro-concentrated solar power, or MicroCSP, uses solar thermal troughs to collect and intensify heat from the sun to heat liquid, which will then be used to cool the 22,000-square-foot hangar where the planes are displayed.

The heated liquid is used in a process called absorption refrigeration that requires no electricity or gas to power an air conditioning system, although the Air Museum system will have a natural gas backup generator.

The museum spends about $100,000 a year on electricity, with the lion’s share, 80 percent, going to air conditioning, said Fred Bell, vice chairman of the museum’s board. He expects the new system to cut those costs by at least a quarter, he said.

Bell, who is also chief operating officer of Noble & Co., a Palm Desert solar developer, said his firm has no financial involvement in the project.

The system which could be installed in the fall, is being funded through a $1.5 million investment that Southern California Gas Co. made earlier this year in Sopogy, the Hawaiian company that has developed the system.

Officials for both companies declined to say exactly how much of the investment will be used for the Palm Springs system, which is the first full-scale commercial test of Sopogy’s technology in California.

“The Palm Springs Air Museum demonstration project is a great example of how energy-efficient technologies, renewable solar energy and clean, affordable natural gas can all work together,” said Hal D. Snyder, cq vice president of customer solutions for SoCal Gas.

To date, Sopogy has a total of seven installations worldwide in locations ranging from Texas to Abu Dhabi, cq company officials said.

“Palm Springs is an ideal location for solar power, and we feel a special connection to the Palm Springs Air Museum,” said Darren T. Kimura, Sopogy’s president and CEO.

“Sopogy’s headquarters are around the corner from Pearl Harbor, once home to Wildcats, Flying Fortresses and other WWII fighter planes.”

The solar thermal troughs will be installed in the museum’s north overflow parking lot, and then linked into the existing air conditioners on the hangar.

K Kaufmann covers energy and green technology and health care for The Desert Sun. She can be reached or (760) 778-4622