Writer: Darrell J. Pehr
A five-year, $3.7 million grant, awarded last summer by the National Science Foundation-supported New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, is focused on the process of making New Mexico a more water- and energy-sufficient state. Another goal of the grant is to help researchers in New Mexico become more competitive in the future when seeking such research funding.
Leading the NMSU EPSCoR effort is Professor Alexander (“Sam”) Fernald of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute and NMSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences.
Teams of NMSU researchers and students have been set up to examine relationships between water, energy and the environment in four key areas: algal bioenergy; osmotic power development; solar power; and social and natural science, which looks at trade-offs between the effects of various choices among energy and economic development options.
Fernald and Peter Lammers of NMSU’s Energy Research Laboratory are leading major components of the project. Lead faculty participants include Tanner Schaub of the NMSU Biosecurity and Food Safety Center and Hongmei Luo of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Faculty and students taking part in the project are from the colleges of Arts & Sciences; Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences; Business; and Engineering.
Fernald said one particular emphasis of the EPSCoR project will be to develop a dynamic “water budget” for the state that would more comprehensively describe water resources in New Mexico than is presently available. This could be especially valuable in the process of water planning, helping to ensure various water users are aware of the availability and possible competing demands for water.
NMSU algal bioenergy researchers are working on ways to increase the scale of production, from small-scale experiments to large-scale cultivation systems for algal fuel production, while taking into account the state’s limited water resources. One way to do that is to take advantage of algal energy production using low-quality, brackish water supplies while still optimizing yields.
Solar power research will look at ways to use and store solar power more effectively and efficiently, while taking into account solar projects’ impact on water resources.
Researchers also are examining the prospects for osmotic power development, which is a function of the differences in salinity of different solutions of water. Among other topics, they will investigate the use of “produced water” that is generated by the oil and gas industry. Produced water is often brackish and currently can be very expensive to dispose of, usually by reinjecting the water produced during drilling operations back into the well that it came from. Instead, such brackish water could provide salty water, which together with fresh water can create power from an osmotic pressure gradient.
NMSU researchers are working with colleagues from other universities in New Mexico on the EPSCoR project, with a plan to seek additional funding for continued research at the end of the five-year grant award.