Afterimage Review

Sustainable Water Sources For The 21st And The 22nd Centuries

water
The water usage needs of the United States Of America for the duration of the 21st and the 22nd centuries can be solved if our government agencies are willing to invest in researching and implementing facilities which would recycle wastewater into drinking water, and large scale desalination of sea water plants.

The water usage needs of the United States Of America for the duration of the 21st and the 22nd centuries can be solved if our government agencies are willing to invest in researching and implementing facilities which would recycle wastewater into drinking water, and large scale desalination of sea water plants.  

In our August 28th, 2016 issue, I’d written an article in which I discussed proposing that our town, city, village, county, state and Federal governments consider installing photovoltaic rooftop panels and mini wind turbines onto the rooftops of the numerous buildings that they own.

In our September 4th, 2016 issue, I’d written an article in which I’d proposed that our local, state and our Federal governments consider converting most of the fleets of automobiles, buses, trucks, passenger ferries and maintenance vehicles that they own to operate on biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel.

In our September 11th, 2016 issue, I’d written an article about a series of proposed domestic infrastructure improvement projects, one of which I’d mentioned was that a combination of wave and tidal turbine facilities along our coastal regions would contribute toward solving most of our electricity needs for the duration of the 21st century.  This will be the fourth and my final article in this series in which I discuss green technologies and large scale domestic infrastructure improvement projects.

In this article, I’m proposing that the water usage needs of the United States Of America (as well as probably most of Canada and Mexico too) for the duration of the 21st and the 22nd centuries can be solved if our government agencies are willing to invest in researching and implementing facilities which would recycle wastewater into drinking water, and large scale desalination of sea water plants.  Engineers learned the basic concepts involved in desalination of sea water into drinking water back in the 1950’s, and the technologies involved with recycling wastewater into drinking water were designed by engineers back in the 1960’s when this technology was needed for the earliest manned space exploration missions.  While some water companies throughout the U.S. have been implementing these technologies, these two technologies have only been implemented on a relatively small scale throughout the country.  These two technologies alone could probably ensure that most of the country will continue to have a plentiful supply of clean water as well as meet the needs of all of our commercial agriculture for the rest of the 21st century, and well into the 22nd century.

A Brief Warning About Greenwashing, And What Will Not Work

 “Greenwashing”- from the word “whitewashing”- to give the impression of solving an environmental issue or pollution problem without actually solving it at all, but by diverting attention away from the problem and in reality, simply replacing one problem with another problem.

When I read articles in the science sections of newspapers about how new plumbing devices or improvements in agricultural methods can conserve water, I notice that these new devices or methods will actually only make a minimal contribution to the issues involving water.  The issue of water usage isn’t actually really the problem- the real issue is the sources where the water is coming from.  In many regions of the U.S. today, we’re still using a system of reservoirs and pipelines which were designed and constructed during the 1930’s with the intention of meeting the water usage needs of populations based on 1930’s projections.  That won’t work much longer, and this is a potentially very serious disaster waiting to happen.  Draining aquafers is not a realistic solution- although aquafers would be a potential source of clean water, they are integral to ecosystems, if we drain the aquafers, then we’d be destroying quite a few ecosystems in the process.

Wastewater

The technologies to recycle wastewater into drinking water were initially invented by NASA engineers as well as engineers within the former Soviet space agency back in the 1960’s.  The engineers who were designing space suits knew that astronauts (and Cosmonauts) would only be able to bring a limited amount of water with their supplies when they were stocking the earliest space capsules for the first space exploration missions.  The astronauts were not bringing purified tap water with their supplies, they were bringing 100% distilled water with them.  The NASA engineers and their former Soviet counterparts understood that the astronauts would need to be able to recycle their own urine and sweat back into distilled water.  The space suits of the 1960’s included mechanisms for collecting their urine, but the 1960’s era lunar exploration missions were short enough so that the astronauts were able to bring all of the drinking water with them that they’d needed.  So while aerospace engineers had pioneered the concept of recycling urine and sweat back into distilled water as well as the machinery which could do this back in the 1960’s, the technologies weren’t actually used until the Skylab missions of the 1970’s.  The Skylab missions were far lengthier than the Apollo missions, and it was the Skylab astronauts who first used the equipment which recycled their urine, tears and sweat back into distilled water.  In the 1980’s, the MIR cosmonauts began using equipment of comparable designs for this same purpose, and right now a small handful of astronauts from around the world are presently imbibing water which was recycled from their own urine and sweat while they are working on their research projects up aboard the International Space Station.

Back in the 1970’s, the administrators at NASA as well as the other space agencies throughout the world were predicting that there would be more upcoming lengthy lunar exploration missions and possibly manned missions to Mars, which would involve constructing lunar research stations, so the engineers spent a lot of time designing equipment which would continuously recycle wastewater back into pure distilled water.  In the 1970’s, the administrators at NASA and the comparable space agencies in other countries did now know that governments around the world would slash their budgets for space exploration, so a lot of equipment was designed that stayed on the drawing boards, and only the earliest prototype models were ever built.

The basic concept is actually not terribly complex.  Aerospace engineers had designed equipment which could boil the collected sweat, tears and urine from the astronauts at very high temperatures, and then, after chemical disinfectants and cleansers are applied and subsequent filtration, the two products which are produced are a very sterile ash, and the other product is 100% pure distilled water.

While these technologies were originally designed for lunar research station, space research stations and research stations on Mars which quite obviously were never built, there’s actually no reason that these same technologies cannot be implemented on a vastly larger scale back here on the planet earth.

Wastewater, or sewage is the used water from sinks, toilets, showers, dishwashers, laundry machines, etc.  Presently, throughout most of the U.S., wastewater goes through a lengthy process of disinfection, in which the microbial and chemical contaminants are removed, and then most of the water is either pumped or discharged into lakes or the oceans.  Some of our wastewater is used in agriculture after it has been treated and disinfected.  Almost none of it is actually sent directly back into our reservoirs for re-use.

The current system is based on 19th and 20th century concepts in urban planning, in which after wastewater has been chemically disinfected and filtered, it re-enters cycles of nature when it is pumped or discharged into the Great Lakes, the Gulf Of Mexico or the oceans.  This worked well for the populations of the 19th century, and throughout the first half of the 20th century.  We can’t rely on this model for much longer.  While this is far cleaner than what some countries in the developing world do, in which untreated water is discharged directly back into lakes, rivers, ponds or oceans, we’re still approaching a serious water shortage here.  As I’ve mentioned, the technologies which were designed for space research stations back in the 1970’s could be implemented throughout our cities here.  The technologies do exist so that wastewater can be boiled, chemically disinfected, filtered and subsequently safely pumped directly back into our reservoirs.

In some parts of the U.S., houses, offices and apartments in some neighborhoods are still not connected to central sewage systems because central sewage collections systems were never constructed.  Buildings still have their own septic tanks, and landlords and homeowners have to hire septic companies to clean their tanks, and then the sewage is left to evaporate and various facilities.  This made sense with the technologies of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, but with today’s technologies, this is an impressively inefficient use of potentially reusable and recyclable wastewater.

City, county and state governments have to make their decisions as to whether or not they feel that the technologies of recycling wastewater back into drinking water are worth investing in, and if they do opt to invest in researching and implementing these technologies, how much longer they want to wait to do so.  It might be easiest to begin by installing these technologies in complexes which are owned by various government agencies; in complexes where thousands of people live or work such as colleges, universities, military bases, military academies, prisons, public housing complexes, airports, etc. the wastewater from the thousands of sinks, toilets, showers, dishwashers, laundry machines, etc. can be collectively filtered and treated.

If you’re curious to learn more about this technology, you can visit astronomy museums and science museums, some of them have models of the equipment which filters human wastewater into distilled water on display for tourists to see.  Once you get passed the initial “ick factor,” realizing that these machines are designed to recycle human urine, tears and sweat back into drinking water, you’ll see that the final product is actually 100% pure distilled water, which is entirely microbe free.  It is sodium free, ion free, mineral free, taste free, pure distilled water, which is actually far cleaner than tap water, the bottled water that you buy in stores, swimming pool water, rain water or lake water, which you end up swallowing when you go swimming.

The other byproduct of the technologies which are designed to recycle wastewater back into drinkable water is a very sterile ash which can be used as landfill.  If the wastewater is chemically disinfected, then filtered, and then boiled, the ash will be as sterile as the distilled water.

In recent years, a small handful of companies which sell bottled water as well as breweries began to experiment with selling bottled water as well as beer which was made from purified wastewater.  This was done only as an experiment, and on a very small scale, these companies really did this as a novelty, to demonstrate to people that this technology does exist, it is safe, to raise awareness about the issue of potentially recycling wastewater back into drinking water, as well as to see if people will really drink beer or bottled water which they know from reading the labels on the bottles originated partially from sewage.

A handful of towns in other regions of the world have recently begun to implement technologies which treat and recycle wastewater from residential neighborhoods as well as from business districts into purified and distilled water, though the governments in only a very small handful of counties, towns and cities in the U.S. seem to have been interested in exploring these technologies so far.

Desalination Of Seawater Plants

The second technology which can solve most of our water need for the duration of the 21st century, and probably most of the 22nd century is another technology which has been very thoroughly understood since the 1950’s.  The first facility which successfully desalinated sea water in the U.S. was built in 1955.  The basic concept behind this technology is also impressively simple.  The vast majority of our planet’s surface is not land, it is ocean water and sea water.  If the sea salt, the microorganisms, and other contaminants can be removed from ocean water or water from harbors and salt water lakes, then you end up with clean useable drinking water.  The supply is almost limitless in a country which has so many thousands of miles of coastlines as us.

The methods aren’t at all simple, but scientists throughout the world have learned about desalination since the 1950’s.  Back in the 1950’s, when the first desalination plant was constructed, multi stage flash distillation was the only available process.  Today, in addition to multi stage flash distillation, utility companies which are interested in constructing a desalination plant can also use vacuum distillation, reverse osmosis, waste heat generators, low temperature thermal desalination, the thermoionic process, the evaporation/ condenser method, forward osmosis, the passarell compressor centrifuge process, biomimesis, nanotechnologies, electrochemical desalination, the electrokinetic method, freeze- thaw techniques, or a combination of the aforementioned processes.  While the machinery involved in these methods is quite complex and in some cases, expensive to build, desalination methods today are far more efficient than they were half a century ago.  Desalinated water can easily be pumped many hundreds of miles to inland regions where it is needed.  A number of other countries throughout the world have been installing large scale desalination facilities in recent years, and so far, the results have been very successful.

Desalination of sea water does produce byproducts- namely everything that is filtered or removed from the water, including the sea salts, microbes, plankton, seaweed, algae, the contaminants and everything else that had been living in or floating within the sea water.  There will probably be quite a few uses for all of these byproducts, this is an emerging technology within an emerging field, and scientists are presently researching industrial and commercial uses for the byproducts of desalination.

So, What Can We Do?

When you travel overseas for either business trips or for your future vacations, take some time to look at the areas where these technologies have already been implemented.  Talk to your politicians and to the candidates for village, town, city, county, state and Federal offices.  What candidates for office need more than anything is your votes.  Most of them do in fact fully understand that if they can’t demonstrate that they’re interested in listening to the people who live within their constituencies and their districts, then you are probably going to vote for someone else.  Tell your candidates that it’s time to stop dragging our collective heels, our great grandchildren’s greatgrandchildren will need clean air and clean water in the 22nd and the 23rd centuries, the technologies which would preserve this have been well understood since the mid 1970’s, and installing them is now more cost effective than ever.

 

Featured picture: Flicker /Copyrigh :Matt Champlin 

 

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About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies

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