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3/15/2009
10:12 PM
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IBM Makes A Splash Into Clean Water

IBM's thirst for higher margins has pushed it into a new line of business: clean water. Last week Big Blue announced a pair of clean water initiatives: new filtration technology and a line of water management services.

IBM's thirst for higher margins has pushed it into a new line of business: clean water. Last week Big Blue announced a pair of clean water initiatives: new filtration technology and a line of water management services.Environmental groups may squawk about desalination plants emitting greenhouse gases and chugging gobs of electric power, but water being what it is -- a vital building block of life and whatnot -- the technology cannot be dismissed.

Clean water -- the holy grail of shipwrecked mariners, bone-dry municipalities, and parched industrial and agricultural concerns -- is big business.

[And sometimes, the province of shady characters. Texas financier Allen Stanford, accused by the SEC of massive fraud, told Forbes in October, "We're very bullish on making a lot of money on water in the next 20 years." Stanford's assets were frozen indefinitely Thursday by a federal judge, putting the billionaire's desalination plans on hold for now.]

Anyway, whoever comes up with cheaper, more efficient ways to filter impurities out of brackish water has a very liquid future. The pressure to do so in an environmentally responsible manner is on.

GE is a major player in the clean water space with a number of facilitie in China alone. Its advanced membrane rainwater recycling system was used at Beijing's National Stadium during the Olympic Games help maintain a sustainable supply of water for landscape irrigation, facility maintenance and a fire-suppression system. And it's large (wet) footprint in the country enabled GE to donate 60 water purification system in the wake of the last year's earthquake.

Now the work of IBM researchers may further help increase the earth's water supply. They've made progress using "a technique for making semiconductors -- into membranes that reject the toxic salts, reported the The Wall Street Journal Friday. No word on the technique's environmental impact.

It's hard to know where the IBM development fits into the current spectrum of desalination technology. The most common technolgies involve a thermal process and reverse osmosis, which employs filters and chemicals to remove impurities from water. Nanotechnology -- the use of carbon nanotubes to make filtration membranes -- is being studied.

Last summer a chemical engineering student in Canada came forward, claiming to have developed new membrane technology " [that] is able to run on solar panels and produce 50 kilograms of water per meter square of the membrane per hour. That is 600 to 700 per cent more efficient than current technology, which produces about seven to eight kilograms per meter per hour," reported the Toronto Globe and Mail.

I haven't heard any more about Mohammed Rasool Qtaisha or his system for converting seawater into clean drinking on a large scale. Maybe he should be talking to IBM and GE; we need better technology for making clean water and it's time to find methods of doing so that environmentalists can get behind.

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