During the 2019 inter-holiday period the Arizona Republic newspaper ran a series of articles, easily destined for a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, detailing the enormity of Arizona’s looming water crisis. They explored all aspects; industrial, residential-developmental, and agricultural. The supply-side from ground and surface waters was examined in great detail, as were the legal issues, and future climatological guesstimates.
While it’s really hard to second-guess this excellent team effort at the Republic, one neglected aspect jumps out, big time. That’s the fact that less than 100 miles from Arizona’s southern border with Mexico lies an inexhaustible source of water. The Sea of Cortez.
Arizona’s neighboring Mexican state of Sonora is also in the same freshwater boat; they’ve been relentlessly pumping groundwater for a massive agricultural industry–absolutely critical to Mexico’s exports.
Here’s the hard news: Arizona & Mexico will both have to desalinate seawater, or be subject to increasingly stringent government controls. (“Oh goodie, another opportunity to grow government!”) But there is another solution.
Engineers will tell you “the two most symbiotic industries on Earth are water desalination and nuclear power.” That’s right, the old bugaboo, nuclear power.
To accomplish this, as filtration entrepreneur Ned Godshall says, “you gotta lift massive (water) quantities and then desal it; that takes a lot of continuous power.”
For the last decade, the US Dept. of Energy has done continuing R&D on what are called SMRs, or small modular reactors. These are long refuel-cycle, highly self-contained units, with absurd safety redundancies, and minimal waste streams that have the physical footprint of a Trader Joe’s store. Bill Gates, who purchased some 25,000 desert acres west of Phoenix in 2017, is the major investor in one of many SMR-startups, TerraPower.
With the overall site requirements of a Walmart, their continuous electrical output can range from 150-300 megawatts. Not the costly, decades-long-to-construct, unfinanceable nuclear power behemoths of the 1960s & 1970s, SMRs can be factory-built offsite in modules and assembled in remote locations.
Using one or more SMRs in southern Arizona solves the power part, but what about desalination? Recent manufacturing advances have presented the cost-efficient potential of an entirely new filtration material, graphene.
Composed of pure carbon, with atoms arranged hexagonally, graphene’s creation in 2004 won the 2010 Nobel prize for its university inventors. Graphene also makes an extraordinary desalination filter, with orders of magnitude improvement, and one that numerous global competitors are rushing to exploit.
Herein lies the opportunity for Arizona, her universities, and water users all. Become the business development model for large-scale powering and desalinating water in remote locations worldwide; where arid, but arable land detached from any natural freshwater sources except the oceans, can be made to bloom and feed the planet. Create a local Arizona industry, researching, building SMR and graphene filtration components, and then deploy them to help these poor nations feed themselves.
Sellers is a South Park Republican who lives in Oro Valley. His background is federal tech-transfer commercialization.