MIT Startup Develops System that Recovers Fresh Water from Power Plants
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Did you know that 39 percent of all water drawn from US rivers, lakes and reservoirs is used to cool electric power plants? Much of that water ends up going out of those cooling towers in the form of vapor.

A group of researchers at MIT have developed a new system that recovers fresh water from cooling towers. The system draws similarities to the existing fog net technology, which involves using vertically-hanging fine mesh nets to collect water droplets from moist air passing through them. The collected water droplets trickle down the mesh, and are collected in a trough at the bottom.

The system that zaps clean water out of power plant steam is the basis for a startup company called Infinite Cooling that last month won MIT’s $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. Infinite Cooling’s founders Maher Damak and Kripa Varanasi raised around $2.5 million to scale up to commercial deployment of the unique water capture technology.

Infinite Cooling

On the roof of the Central Utility Plant building, standing in front of one of the cooling towers, are (left to right): Seth Kinderman, Central Utility Plant engineering manager; Kripa Varanasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering; recent doctoral graduates Karim Khalil and Maher Damak; and Patrick Karalekas, plant engineer, Central Utilities Plant. Image: Melanie Gonick/MIT

The idea of capturing water droplets from vapor plume is nothing new. Last year, Omar Yaghi, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a water-harvesting device that excels at absorbing water, even under low-humidity conditions.

Infinite Cooling began as part of Damak’s doctoral thesis, which aimed to improve the efficiency of fog-harvesting systems that are used in water-scarce regions. It can recapture up to 80 percent of the water droplets from moist air that would normally escape from cooling towers of power plants. The water collected is then recycled back into the cooling system. Infinite Cooling’s water-harvesting technology could decrease power plant water consumption by 30 percent by recapturing water from moist air and turning cooling towers into a closed system. This could help save gallons of water each year.

The unique water-harvesting technology could have a significant environment and economic impact in water-stressed countries. It could also show great hope particularly in the U.S., which has more than 7,000 power plants across the country.

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