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MIT and Kuwait University researchers awarded $5.5 million for work on next-generation desalination systems

Funding sponsored through the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment.
Satellite image of a desalination plant
Satellite image of a desalination plant
Photo: Google Earth

A team of MIT researchers, together with a team from Kuwait University, has been awarded a $5.5 million dollar grant for a collaborative research project titled, “Next Generation Brine Desalination and Management for Efficiency, Reliability, and Sustainability.”

The project is being funded through the Signature Research Program of the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment (CNRE) by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) with a performance period of three years.

The project is designed to address several coupled challenges and to investigate desalination systems from the microfluidic scale up to the system level scale:

  • innovations in electrical desalination technologies combined with high-fidelity modeling, multi-staging and system-wide optimization with detailed techno-economic analysis;
  • innovation in materials and surface coating for increased reliability of operation; and
  • mitigation of negative environmental impacts of brine discharge through innovative coastal discharge configurations, combined with reduction in discharge salinity due to blending of brine with treated waste water effluent, as part of integrated energy recovery schemes.

These core research areas will be investigated in parallel while accounting for coupling between them, adding to the uniqueness of this project.

Jongyoon Han, principal investigator of the project and a professor of both the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Department of Biological Engineering, says, “The issue of proper and efficient brine treatment, both in terms of economic and environmental aspects, is truly an ‘MIT-hard’ challenge, so all of us in the team are motivated by it. Not only will this project have potential impact to Kuwait and other Gulf states, the ideas and concepts developed in this project may have implications to other challenging environmental remediation such as the treatment of produced water from oil and gas industries.”

Bader Al-Anzi, professor at the Department of Environmental Technology Management at Kuwait University and the leading co-principal investigator at Kuwait University was instrumental in the formation of the team and the scope of this collaborative research project during his yearlong appointment at MIT as a visiting scientist.

“Like other GCC countries in the region, Kuwait replenishes its water resources through desalination process, for potable water, and treated wastewater for non-human consumption purposes/applications,” Al-Anzi says. “However, the foregoing processes discharge brine and treated wastewater, respectively, into the Gulf that may pose a serious threat to the marine life if left untreated. The current project addresses such challenges by increasing both energetic and environmental sustainability of Kuwaiti water management by developing / validating novel ideas and interfacing them optimally with existing plant workflow.”

“The ideas in this project build on the unique and synergistic expertise of the MIT and Kuwait University team in desalination and environmental related technologies and sciences,” says Murad Abu-Khalaf, the executive director of CNRE. “The team has the expertise needed to create new innovations in desalination systems from the microfluidic levels up to the system wide level. The project addresses a critical challenge to the sustainable growth of Kuwait, which gets more than 90 percent of its freshwater from desalination, and the Gulf states at large. We are excited by the prospects this collaboration between MIT and Kuwait University brings in addressing challenges of such a global scope. This is the second project to be initiated through CNRE’s Signature Research Program that, collaboratively with researchers in Kuwait, investigates technical challenges that have both regional and global impact.”

The other co-PIs from MIT are Karen Gleason, professor of chemical engineering, John Lienhard, professor of mechanical engineering, Jacob White, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Eric Adams, senior research engineer at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Directed by Mujid Kazimi alongside associate director Jacopo Buongiorno — both professors in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT — and executive director Murad Abu-Khalaf, CNRE was established at MIT in 2005 to foster collaborations in research and education in areas of energy, water and the environment between MIT and research institutions in Kuwait. The center is funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences.

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