SWFF Seed Money Aids Desalination Breakthrough

Innovation is a long game. In 2014, Dr. Amos Winter’s team at MIT entered the USAID/BRM Desal Prize—a competition to develop a desalination product for aiding farmers plagued by brackish water in many developing countries.

Saline water is one of the most challenging obstacles for farmers in producing healthy crop yields around the world, particularly in low lying areas near seas and oceans. Like all competitions under the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program, the rivalry for funds was intense. However, Winter’s team prevailed and received seed money to perfect its product.

The difficulty was in making the desalinization product cost-effective.

The initial cost of the Photovoltaic-powered Electrodialysis (PV-ED) unit was $60,000, a figure that puts it out of reach for poor communities. However, that cost today has been reduced considerably. “We have to reach a reasonable price point, and that is the catalyst for innovation in developing and emerging markets,” said Winter, who describes himself as an engineering scientist. “The cost of building our prototype for the desalination prize was a wakeup call, indicating we had to drive [the price] lower through our research.”

Where the PV-ED saves money (over the more common Reverse Osmosis technique of water purification) is in energy cost, both in terms of the expense of the grid for solar energy and in terms of less water wasted. “We are very excited about this accomplishment,” said Winter. “We are able to go off-grid and are close to matching the cost of an on-grid alternative.”

MIT’s newest, low-cost PV-ED system will be tested this spring in New Mexico at a research compound, which is the focal point for developing desalination technologies, the Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Facility (BGNDRF). For the SWFF trial, the team went to India, where much of the country is plagued by brackish groundwater.

I want to make a positive, real-world impact driven by academic contributions … I like solving problems.

Why are developing technologies in desalination so important for the SWFF program? It is estimated that by the year 2050, the world’s population will reach nine billion—with only sufficient year-round usable water for a third that number.

USAID, and its partners from the governments of South Africa, Sweden, and the Netherlands, embarked six years ago on the SWFF program in 40 countries—from India to Peru—to reward innovators who developed ideas to produce more crops using less water.

Winter’s MIT project is one of a number of innovations that SWFF is supporting with funds and technical assistance. Another innovation in this area is seed development that can withstand saline content in soil.

The United Nations estimates that the average minimum use of water worldwide is about 350 gallons per person each day when all uses of water are figured. Only one percent of the world’s water is saline free.

“I want to make a positive, real-world impact driven by academic contributions,” said Winter. “I like solving problems.

“It’s true that there is less money in these markets, but they still have wants and needs. Innovation enhances peoples’ lives and enables them to make more money. This, in turn, sets up a mechanism to grow, scale, and be sustainable.”

Winter and his team have been on the cutting edge of various products that have special uses in emerging markets since they don’t represent expensive investments. This includes the development of a wheelchair that can go off-road with ease, a drip irrigation system, and durable but inexpensive prosthetic limbs.

“It has been our goal to engineer products for emerging markets that are often one-tenth the cost — or even less — compared to a similar product in a western market, but yield equivalent levels of performance,” said Winter. “We have been successful at this.”

Winter said that historically, innovation had been created for wealthy markets in the hope that the benefits would trickle down to poorer countries where they were sold.

“Perhaps they would trickle down,” said Winter. “But what often happens is performance is stripped to lower price, resulting in inferior products that no one would want to buy. Our idea is to innovate for the poorest and most constrained markets, then translate it back to wealthy markets as a disruptive innovation—this process is termed reverse innovation. That’s what we did with the wheelchair, and it is what we are doing with the desalination project.”

Why is an academic institution such as MIT ground zero for such innovation?

“You can’t just depend on existing engineering knowledge,” said Winter. “You have to create new knowledge, and that often falls into academic research.”

Winter said he characterizes what he does as a social benefit, but that it is also an economic benefit. The two are not mutually exclusive.

“We try to pursue viable economic models. If it is simply social or charity development, you quickly run into problems with scaling. If you can make a product people want to buy, which benefits their lives while turning a profit for the seller, everyone wins.”



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water