More water for the desert—and beyond

Qatar’s reserves of oil and natural gas make it one of the richest countries in the world—except when it comes to water. The desert nation is notably low on water, and what little it has often is salty.

Qatar’s reserves of oil and natural gas make it one of the richest countries in the world—except when it comes to water. The desert nation is notably low on water, and what little it has often is salty.

So when CALS biological systems engineering professor Krishnapuram “KG” Karthikeyan was offered the chance to spend two and a half years at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus in Doha evaluating innovative water treatment techniques and helping to establish an environmental sciences program, he jumped at the opportunity.

“In Wisconsin, my focus has mostly been on water quality issues. There, where water is scarce, I could focus on water quantity and how to make the best use of existing resources,” says Karthikeyan, who returned to Madison this fall.

Desalinating water so that it can be used for drinking and irrigation usually requires expensive equipment and a lot of energy. Karthikeyan’s research—conducted in partnership with UW–Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Anderson and others—focuses on capacitive deionization (CDI), an emerging method of removing salts and minerals from water by applying an electric field between carbon electrodes. The latest generation of CDI technology that Karthikeyan and Anderson’s group tested proved efficient for use in desalination and capable of reducing operational costs—in fact, it can easily be coupled with a solar energy source, a readily available commodity in Qatar. Karthikeyan believes the new technology could lead to the development of low-cost, energy-efficient inland desalination systems—a leap that would have implications well beyond Qatar.

“Not all arid countries are rich like Qatar,” notes Karthikeyan. “They don’t have the money to desalinate water from the Persian Gulf or other sources. You have to keep pushing the envelope looking for low-cost, low-energy methods.”

While in Qatar, Karthikeyan also began exploring the long-term effects of using treated wastewater for growing crops, research he will continue in Madison in collaboration with CALS soil science professor Joel Pedersen. “Water reuse is going to be of growing importance universally,” says Karthikeyan. “It’s already an issue in the southwestern United States and in southern California—and it will become more important in Wisconsin as well.”

Karthikeyan also took water issues into the classroom, where he taught non-science students—mostly business, computer science and information technology majors—how the environment, engineering and society are related.

“Getting non-science majors excited about topics like water management is important,” Karthikeyan says. “Linking water and food production helped them see an economically important connection. With climate change issues at the forefront, these topics are very timely, and as future entrepreneurs, these business students will play a significant role in their future companies and raise awareness among their colleagues.”