Solar membrane distillation: Desalination for the navajo nation

Vasiliki Karanikola, Andrea F. Corral, Patrick Mette, Hua Jiang, Robert G. Arnoldand, Wendell P Ela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Provision of clean water is among the most serious, long-term challenges in the world. To an ever increasing degree, sustainable water supply depends on the utilization of water of impaired initial quality. This is particularly true in developing nations and in water-stressed areas such as the American Southwest. One clear example is the Navajo Nation. The reservation covers 27,000 square miles, mainly in northeastern Arizona. Low population density coupled with water scarcity and impairment makes provision of clean water particularly challenging. The Navajos rely primarily on ground water, which is often present in deep aquifers or of brackish quality. Commonly, reverse osmosis (RO) is chosen to desalinate brackish ground water, since RO costs are competitive with those of thermal desalination, even for seawater applications. However, both conventional thermal distillation and RO are energy intensive, complex processes that discourage decentralized or rural implementation. In addition, both technologies demand technical experience for operation and maintenance, and are susceptible to scaling and fouling unless extensive feed pretreatment is employed. Membrane distillation (MD), driven by vapor pressure gradients, can potentially overcome many of these drawbacks. MD can operate using low-grade, sub-boiling sources of heat and does not require extensive operational experience. This presentation discusses a project on the Navajo Nation, Arizona (Native American tribal lands) that is designed to investigate and deploy an autonomous (off-grid) system to pump and treat brackish groundwater using solar energy. ?ench-scale, hollow fiber MD experiment results showed permeate water fluxes from 21 L/m2·d can be achieved with transmembrane temperature differences between 40 and 80?C. Tests run with various feed salt concentrations indicate that the permeate flux decreases only about 25% as the concentration increases from 0 to 14% (w/w), which is four times seawater salt concentration. The quality of the permeate water remains constant at about 1 mg/L regardless of the changes in the influent salt concentration. A nine-month MD field trial, using hollow fiber membranes and completely offthe- shelf components demonstrated that a scaled-up solar-driven MD system was practical and economically viable. Based on these results, a pilot scale unit will be constructed and deployed on the tribal lands.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-70
Number of pages4
JournalReviews on Environmental Health
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Apr 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Desalination
  • Membrane distillation
  • Microporous hydrophobic membrane

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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