NMSU, partners vying for $100 million hub to address water challenges

WRITER: Tiffany Acosta, 575-646-3929, tfrank@nmsu.edu
CONTACT: Pei Xu, 575-646-5870, pxu@nmsu.edu

As a leader in water treatment research, the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University is a part of a team preparing a proposal for a new U.S. Department of Energy grant to create an Energy-Water Desalination Hub. The award for the hub will be approximately $100 million, $20 million per year for five years, with a five-year renewal possibility. 

Civil engineering professor Pei Xu, center, works with graduate students Guanyu Ma, left, and Xuesong Xu in her laboratory. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

As a member of the National Alliance for Water Innovation team, Civil Engineering Associate Professor Pei Xu is leading NMSU’s effort in a consortium that includes Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory along with several universities and industry partners. 

“We aim to develop cost-effective and energy efficient availability of clean water reclaimed from a variety of traditional and non-traditional sources such as brackish water, seawater, wastewater and produced water for a range of applications including municipal drinking water, agricultural uses, manufacturing and other industrial needs,” Xu said 

“Results from this research and development would advance economic competitiveness, energy and water security and responsible environmental stewardship of the nation. NMSU’s participation in the hub would benefit the state of New Mexico, which faces water scarcity and severe droughts.” 

Proposals for the hub are due in May with an announcement slated for August. 

“We have a very unique expertise we can bring to the hub,” she said. “We are developing innovative technologies for selective removal of contaminants from water, and high-efficiency, renewable energy driven desalination processes.” 

In addition to research funding, Xu said the hub would bring in significant educational opportunities for students and postdocs to develop the next generation of workforce in water treatment. 

“Dr. Xu has earned widespread respect for her research in the water-energy nexus. One of her primary research areas is to develop sustainable water-energy-food-environment systems using low-cost, highly efficient and flexible treatment processes to reclaim produced water. She is an ideal person to be involved in this effort, and New Mexico is an ideal location for the Energy-Water Desalination Hub,” said Lakshmi N. Reddi, dean of the College of Engineering.

The hub opportunity is good timing, Xu said, because it would allow NMSU to continue water treatment research with the conclusion of a National Science Foundation grant, the Engineering Research Center for Re-inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure, in 2021. NMSU partnered with Stanford University, Colorado School of Mines and the University of California, Berkeley in 2011 to create ReNUWIt with a goal of identifying new ways to supply urban water and treat wastewater with greater efficiency, resource recovery and environmental mitigation. 

(Left to right) Peter Friske, Water-Energy Resilience Institute director at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, Luis Cifuentes, vice president for research at New Mexico State University, Eric Febbo, environmental and sustainability technology manager at ExxonMobil Corporation, and Dan Arvizu, NMSU chancellor, discuss water research collaborations. (NMSU photo by Vladimir Avina)

After joining the NMSU faculty in 2013, the work of Xu and her research team has garnered more than $3.5 million in research support. Along with her work in municipal water reuse, brackish water desalination and concentrate treatment, Xu also examines produced water generated during oil and natural gas exploration. Xu and multiple NMSU leaders including Chancellor Dan Arvizu discussed a possible new industry collaboration with ExxonMobil representatives and Peter Fiske, the lead of the NAWI team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in a meeting on campus in January. 

“Support from industrial partners such as ExxonMobil is essential to the strength of this research. The future of water and energy is important to their business, and they will play an important role going forward with water-energy research,” Reddi said. 

Xu believes a collaboration with ExxonMobil would be a mutually beneficial partnership that would allow NMSU to test its research. 

“They make sure our technology isn’t just in an ivory tower, but it will be applicable to solve real-world problems,” she said. 

ExxonMobil has one of the most active oil and gas operations in the region, which includes the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, with plans to triple total daily production by 2025. At the meeting at NMSU, representatives from ExxonMobil discussed its research portfolio including the lifecycle of produced water. 

Xu said she is optimistic about both the Hub and collaboration with ExxonMobil and credits NMSU civil engineering faculty members such as Assistant Professor Yanyan Zhang, Associate Professor Lambis Papelis and Professor Nirmala Khandan and Tanner Schaub from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences along with faculty members from chemical and materials engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering for creating a strong research team. 


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