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NMT Team Deploys Innovative Water Purification System

NMT Team Deploys Innovative Water Purification System

 

SOCORRO, N.M. – A team of New Mexico Tech students has made a significant breakthrough with a “Geothermal Membrane Distillation” prototype device that is currently being deployed at a commercial greenhouse operation near Las Cruces.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Frank Huang, more than two dozen students have participated in this five-year project supported by N.M. EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Graduate student Laura Laumbauch makes adjustments to the membrane distillation prototype at Masson Farms earlier this summer. 

While membrane distillation is not new, the project uses geothermal energy as the driving force for membrane distillation, which is unique in the United States. Another innovation is that the team fabricated its own hollow-fiber membranes that effectively purify brackish water.

Huang’s team has built a pilot plant that can desalinate one gallon of geothermal brackish water per minute. The prototype is currently being field tested with project partner Masson Farms in Radium Springs, N.M., just north of Las Cruces.

Beginning just after commencement, Huang and the team leaders worked feverishly for two weeks to assemble and install the prototype at the farm before their May 23 deadline.  Since then, they’ve been fine-tuning the device on a daily basis.

The next step would be to scale up the system to handle 50 to 100 gallons per minute.

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A filtration cannister, which is filled with the novel hollow membranes designed at NMT. 

 

 

“The end goal is to come up with a design for a full-scale system and do a cost analysis,” Huang said. “We are exploring the potential for a pilot plant and maybe build it at Masson greenhouse. When you try for commercialization, you have to have something to show people.”

The irrigation source water at Masson Farms contains high levels of calcium, magnesium and other minerals that are harmful to greenhouse plants. Masson Farms currently uses a reverse osmosis system to purify water, which is costly and requires regular maintenance. Huang’s system could save the company money on water purification. However, operations manager Jacob Vasquez said the most important aspect of this system is being environmentally friendly.

“Energy efficiency and being able to reuse water through this prototype they’re developing are the two biggest things,” Vasquez said. “Energy efficiency is at the top of everything we do. Our owner was green before green was a thing.”

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Dr. Frank Huang (center, in blue shirt) with his student team at Masson Farms.

 

Over the four-year course of this project, Huang has had more than 25 students involved, both graduate and undergraduates. The work has been truly multidisciplinary, including students from biology, environmental engineering, chemical engineering, and materials engineering.

“We’ve graduated a lot of students and the current program has 10 students,” Huang said. “And a lot of them, when they finish their undergrad, continue on as master’s students. It’s a very multidisciplinary project.”

Masson Farms was launched in Kansas City in 1919 with a 15,000 square-feet of greenhouse space. Over the course of the past 20 years, the company relocated its entire operation to New Mexico to take advantage of the year-round growing climate and the availability of geothermal water and energy in the Rio Grande Valley.

Now, the company has 22 acres of greenhouse space (about 950,000 square-feet) dedicated to succulents, flowers, and seasonal plants.

The company currently uses two fresh water wells for irrigation and the geothermal well for heating. The company sand-filters the fresh water and then through a reverse osmosis unit for further filtration.

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One of the greenhouses at Masson Farms in Radium Springs, N.M.

 

If the New Mexico Tech device can be scaled up, the geothermal water could be used for irrigation on some of the hardier plants as well.

“This project is fascinating,” Vasquez said. “It’s been very education for us. At the university research level, they are getting into big stuff future-wise. This technology isn’t out there across the world yet.”

– NMT –