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Spring 2016 Issue 15





Water, energy and food are essential for the development and The water, energy and food nexus security of any society. The three sectors are closely linked, underlines the strategic research and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus describes the complex and agenda of the WDRC. A key aspect interdependent nature of our global resources. The three sectors is the water-food nexus in arid and have traditionally been looked at independently, but due to water-scarce regions. The WDRC growing demands there is a need to consider the nexus approach. aims to contribute with new Recent predictions show that there will be an increasing demand perspectives in the water-food for fresh water, energy and food caused by population growth nexus and is conducting various and mobility, urbanization and increasing numbers of mega research projects related to the cities, economic development and international trade, as well as use of non-conventional water impacts from climate change. A key challenge in the future will resources in agriculture, alternative be ensuring water, food and energy security, particularly in arid food production systems and and water-scarce regions. improved water management in arid regions, and is accomplishing Agriculture accounts on average for 70% of total global this through use of renewable energy. Some of the main activities freshwater withdrawals, making it the largest user of water. include: novel advanced treatment technologies for wastewater Water is used along the entire agri-food supply chain and needed reclamation and reuse in agriculture; health and safety issues for agriculture, aquaculture and livestock. In the Middle East, the of wastewater reuse in food production (i.e. microbial and withdrawal is a little above 85%. In water stressed regions, there chemical); and integrated systems for improved water and is a need to address increasing demands on a limited resource, energy management in hydroponic/aquaponic solutions that as well as the impacts current agriculture practices may have include recycling aquaculture systems. This newsletter aims to on the water sources, such as discharge of excess nutrients, highlight some of these activities. pesticides and herbicides and other pollution. Prof. TorOve Leiknes WDRC News | Spring 2016


THE SELFWATERING GREENHOUSE RYAN LEFERS Ryan Lefers is a Ph.D. student at the WDRC and works with Professor TorOve Leiknes. He completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering at South Dakota State University in the U.S. His main research interests are water and food security, systems agriculture, seawater-based evaporative cooling, liquid desiccantbased dehumidification and fresh water supply systems. Food security and water security are completely dependent upon each other. The industry of agriculture, i.e. the production of food, consumes somewhere between 70-80% of all fresh water used in the world. Therefore, any talk about water security must include a consideration of the water used to grow food. While consumers worldwide are becoming more aware of their home water use, fewer consumers are aware that the biggest portion of their total water footprint comes not from the water they use but from the food that they eat. For example, the estimated world average amount of water required to produce a hamburger is ~2,400 liters. In contrast, an average 10 minute shower uses ~100 liters of water. Water is “used” in agriculture primarily to grow plants. Plants collect liquid water via their roots and release humidity to the atmosphere from their leaves in the form of vapor in a process known as transpiration. Transpiration is combined with evaporation from he soil in a complete process termed evapotranspiration.

WDRC News | Spring 2016

Evapotranspiration is why we “lose” so much liquid fresh water in the production of food. In nature, this water vapor eventually condenses and falls back to the Earth as rain, but rarely falls in the same location from where it evaporated. The growing of crops in greenhouses offers a unique opportunity to recapture water vapor. Because a greenhouse is a closed environment, the evapotranspiration of water vapor can be contained. Traditionally, venting has been added to greenhouses to prevent the buildup of heat and/or humidity. Researchers at the WDRC are evaluating a new solution: recovery of the water vapor for reuse as irrigation water within the greenhouse. This closes the water cycle within the greenhouse and eliminates the need for additional irrigation water on a daily basis. The specific solution under evaluation by the WDRC is the use of salt-based liquid desiccants to capture water

vapor and the subsequent desalination of these solutions to recover the fresh water. KAUST Ph.D. candidate and professional engineer Ryan Lefers is leading the research efforts under the direction of Professor TorOve Leiknes and in partnership with other researchers at KAUST and institutions in the U.K. and the U.S. Bench-scale efforts in the laboratory have already shown the potential to dehumidify air using liquid desiccants circulated within hollow fiber membranes. Vacuum membrane distillation has also been used successfully to recover both fresh water and re-usable desiccant solution from spent desiccant solutions. Efforts are underway to make the process more efficient and to evaluate scale up for possible pilot-scale implementation. If ultimately successful on a commercial scale, the liquid desiccant water recycling system could reduce the amount of water required to grow 1 kilogram of the tomatoes and lettuce in our salads from a world average of about 200 liters of fresh water to 1 liter.


HALO AGRICULTURE RESEARCH HYDROLOGY AND LAND OBSERVATION “You cannot manage what you do not measure� is an old business adage, and it is also critically relevant to securing national water resources. To achieve water (and hence food) security, one must quantify available water resources and determine the rates at which these are being used and replenished. Unfortunately, information on both of these elements is generally lacking, not only in Saudi Arabia but globally. Addressing these issues is a key motivation for work being undertaken within the Hydrology and Land Observation (HALO) group at KAUST. One area where accurate understanding of water resources is most needed is in the agricultural sector. As the largest water-using sector globally (more than

two thirds of all water consumed goes to agriculture), accurately quantifying water use and developing ways to increase efficiencies has the potential to deliver dramatic water savings. Agricultural activity supports the food demands of a growing population, provides a significant source of employment and is critically important to the economic and social development of nations. However, striking a balance between available water and agricultural production is an issue of not just national but also global importance, particularly in the face of changing climates and growing pressures on variable water resources. These problems are especially true in

dryland environments such as Saudi Arabia, which face the challenges of limited water resources and growing populations and represent a significant source of agricultural production. To confront some of these important issues, the HALO group is using advanced observation and modeling tools, including high-resolution satellite data, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and in-situ measurements to map and monitor water usage across a range of agricultural systems. One research area receiving focus is estimating the water being used by crops, a variable that is measured through determining the evaporation and transpiration of croplands.

The KAUST-HALO group is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the improving monitoring and prediction of water usage in agricultural systems.

WDRC News | Spring 2016


Quantifying the amount of water used between crop seeding to crop harvesting allows for the sustainability of such activities to be determined, but only if other components of the water cycle are also being measured (e.g. groundwater storage, rainfall and river flows). To do this, the HALO group is working with local farmers to monitor on-farm water use, remotely sense plant health and estimate crop productivity. Measurements that are being collected range from physically gauging actual volumes of water

applied during irrigation to directly measuring gas exchanges between the leaf and atmosphere (these occur during processes such as photosynthesis). A leaf-to-farm scale approach is being employed to comprehensively measure the range of processes that comprise agricultural water use. The goal is to take this novel modeling and observational framework from the farm scale and apply it nationally and then globally. However, observations by themselves are not especially useful: all of this

information needs to be analyzed. This is where the use of sophisticated modeling approaches comes to the fore. The HALO group is using models that track water flows, monitor plant health and also predict crop yield. We are also conducting research into techniques that can convert images retrieved from UAVs and satellites into products that the farmer can interpret directly; for example, translating satellite reflectances into chlorophyll and nitrogen content to determine whether crops are nutrient deficient, or using UAVs to directly estimate crop height to inform crop growth models and make predictions of yield. By developing new observational techniques and interpretative frameworks, the HALO group is able to provide the agricultural sector with the tools and information that they need to improve the management and security of their farmlands and also better manage and protect national food and water resources.


WASTE WATER REUSE IN AGRICULTURE Agriculture water consumption imposes a serious burden on water supplies in water-scarce countries like Saudi Arabia. To achieve both food and water security, local authorities have commenced a country-wide initiative to develop the local market for treated wastewater. Simply put, treated effluent from municipal wastewater treatment plants can be used as an alternative water supply for irrigation. The Environmental Microbial Safety and Biotechnology group at the WDRC was established in January 2014 by Assistant Professor Peiying Hong. The research activities in this group is motivated by the need to address water scarcity issues, and focuses on two main areas: microbial safety and anaerobic biotechnologies. An ongoing research effort involves looking into how these ARB and ARGs would persist in anoxic or anaerobic conditions in response to oxidative stresses (e.g. chlorine or ozone) and upon exposure to sunlight irradiation. The Environmental Microbial Safety and WDRC News | Spring 2016

Biotechnology group is evaluating the development of anaerobic membrane bioreactors and their hybrids as a sustainable biotechnology to provide clean and safe water that can be reused. Anaerobic processes produce methane that can be used to generate energy while retaining resources like nitrogen and phosphorus that can be recovered for other use. The coupling of a membrane filtration allows for removal of emerging contaminants like antibiotics as well as antibiotic resistant bacteria and antibiotic resistance genes. Although anaerobic processes demonstrate high potential to be an energy-positive biotechnology for municipal wastewater treatment, membrane biofouling remains a bottleneck in achieving overall sustainability. Ongoing research within the group includes the evaluation of anaerobic membrane foulants and understanding of how the foulant layer can possibly benefit rejection of emerging contaminants.


ORGANIC MICRO-POLLUTANT REMOVAL IN WASTEWATER REUSE IN AGRICULTURE Wastewater can be regarded as a valuable resource and a non-conventional water source, particularly in arid and water scarce regions. The most common wastewater treatment process is based on aerobic biological process using activated sludge reactors. Anaerobic biological processes have some potential benefits including no energy input required for aeration, energy recovery through methane production, much lower sludge production, and capacity to degrade organic micro pollutants (e.g. pharmaceuticals and personal care products). However, most nutrients (i.e. nitrogen and phosphorus) remain in the effluent making the effluent suitable for agricultural and landscaping irrigation reuse. An anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) - a hybrid of anaerobic digestion and membrane separation, is a novel approach to build advanced treatment plants for wastewater reclamation. Coupling membranes and anaerobic process in the AnMBR may overcome the drawbacks of the conventional anaerobic activated

sludge process through the excellent sludge-water separation by membrane filtration (MF/UF) and operation with high organic loading rates (OLR) and organics removal thereby producing a high quality effluent. Wastewater reclamation through AnMBR processes is an ongoing research topic at the WDRC conducted by Research Scientist Dr. Chun-Hai Wei and Prof. TorOve Leiknes. The main research focus is on bulk organics and organic micro-pollutants (OMPs) removal in AnMBR targeting water reuse for agricultural irrigation. Twelve OMPs representing different classes or compounds were investigated. Six OMPs (i.e. Amitriptyline, Diphenhydramine, Fluoxetine, Sulfamethoxazole, TDCPP and Trimethoprim) showed readily biodegradable characteristics with over 88% removal, which were related to the strong electron donating groups (-NR2, -NH2, -OH, -OR) in their molecular structure. Another six OMPs (i.e. Atrazine, Carbamazepine, DEET, Dilantin, Primidone and TCEP) showed refractory characteristics with below

30% removal, which were related to the strong electron withdrawing groups (-CONHR, -CONH2, -CONR2) and/or halogen substitute (-Cl) in their molecular structure. Removal of the not readily biodegradable compounds needs to be accomplished either by posttreatment of the effluent. Alternatively, coupling nanofiltration (NF) membranes in the AnMBR removal the recalcitrant compounds can be achieved.

Figure 1 The lab-scale mesophilic AnMBR set-up

In a summary, AnMBR is a promising advanced wastewater treatment technology for energy recovery and can produce good effluent for agricultural irrigation reuse. By applying NF filtration and other proper posttreatment options such as adsorption and/or advanced oxidation processes, common OMPs found in wastewater can be eliminated and thus reduce the potential impact of such compounds applied to irrigation crops. (Publications: Bioresource Technology, 2014, 166: 326-334, Journal of Water Reuse and Desalination, 2016, in press)

Figure 2 Permeate COD (a) and methane production (b) under all tested OLRs

WDRC News | Spring 2016


COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: UTS & KAUST FOR SUSTAINABLE HYDROPONIC IRRIGATION Renewable energy-driven hydroponic system using an integrated membrane-biological process for sustainable agriculture and water reuse in arid regions KAUST and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) recently signed a collaborative research project funded by KAUST under the Science and Engineering Engagement and Development Fund (SEED) program. The project is a one year grant (July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016) to carry out joint research with UTS. The team at UTS consists of Associate Professor Ho Kyong Shon, Dr. Sherub Phuntsho, Dr. Leonard Tijing, Dr. Laura Chekli and Mr. Youngjin Kim while the project team at the KAUST WDRC is led by Prof. TorOve Leiknes, Prof. NorEddine Ghaffour and Dr. Sheng Li. The aim of this project is to explore a novel hybrid system integrating a biological wastewater treatment process and fertilizer drawn forward osmosis for a closed hydroponic system through wastewater reclamation to achieve a sustainable solution for the water-food nexus. The system is driven by renewable energy with potential zero liquid discharge. UTS has developed components of the integrated closed loop concept using fertilizer solutions and wastewater and demonstrated the concept using small-scale pilots. WDRC has investigated severe organic and biofouling of the membranes and aims to conduct field studies treating/reclaiming KAUST wastewater and applying brackish water for irrigation. Building on results from this project, there is a potential for commercialization of the fertilizer-drawn forward osmosis technology that will enable sustainable wastewater reclamation and reuse for irrigation. The successful collaboration has resulted in two high-impact journal publications to date (references below), with more manuscripts and highlights from the project currently being developed. The project also includes opportunities for exchange visits of researchers and students to enhance the collaboration as groundwork for larger collaborative projects in the future. Associate Professor Ho Kyong Shon and Dr. Sherub Phuntsho visited KAUST for two weeks in February 2016, and Mr. Youngjin Kim from UTS is currently conducting the collaborative experiments at KAUST for three months. Dr. Sheng Li from KAUST also visited UTS for a month in December 2015/January 2016. During his visit, he carried out two main experiments: bio-methane potential and biofouling in anaerobic osmotic membrane bioreactor.

• Y. Kim, L. Chekli, W.G. Shim, S. Phuntsho, S. Li, N. Ghaffour, T.O. Leiknes, H.-K. Shon “Selection of suitable fertilizer draw solute for a novel fertilizer-drawn forward osmosis-anaerobic membrane bioreactor hybrid system.” Bioresource Technology, (2016). DOI:10.1016/j. biortech.2016.02.019 • S. Phuntsho, J. Kim, M. Johir, S. Hong, Z. Li, N. Ghaffour, T.O. Leiknes, H.-.K Shon. “Fertiliser drawn forward osmosis process: Pilot-scale desalination of mine impaired water for fertigation.” Journal of Membrane Science, 508, 22-31 (2016). DOI:10.1016/j.memsci.2016.02.024

WDRC News | Spring 2016


INDUSTRY CORNER ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT Mario Blanco is currently the manager of industry collaborations at KAUST and is responsible for a team of subject matter experts dedicated to match the needs of industry with the talent and expertise of the 140 world class faculty that have joined KAUST in the six years since the University’s inception. Before coming to KAUST, Blanco was a research scientist and the senior manager DR. MARIO BLANCO, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT of industry collaborations at the Beckman Institute at Caltech in Pasadena, California (from 1992 to 2009). He has co-authored over 60 scientific publications in quantum chemistry, modeling software, polymers, sensors and energy storage technologies, and has written a book on his work at JPL/NASA on the Artificial Nose for the International Space Station (ISS). He holds over 10 patents in these technologies and has participated in three technology-based startups.

Q: From your experience, what are the main benefits of industrial collaboration for the scientific community? A: The two main benefits of industrial collaboration for the scientific community are 1) the financial support to tackle difficult goal oriented unsolved problems and 2) the training of future experts/leaders in these fields. Involvement in industry-sponsored projects provides practical training for students and researchers. It provides them with first-hand experience on problems facing industry and the opportunity of creating solutions to overcome development bottlenecks through novel research. For industry, the benefits of working with academia resides in having access to research know-how without the burden of having to permanently hire experts in every conceivable discipline. Costs limit the ability of all enterprises to hire a critical mass of experts in advanced fields of science (e.g. mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, etc.). Partnering with academia is a resource that industry is beginning to value, particularly as part of an open innovation model. Interestingly, 79% of all public works that are cited by patents (U.S. statistics) are papers resulting from research done by academia, whether or not it has been funded by industry. Q: What values and attributes are essential to the success of the WDRC/KAUST in industrial partnership/ collaboration in the region and worldwide? A: Regionally, it is important for the WDRC/KAUST to continue to train local talent through authentic partnerships with industry. Equally important is to convey the importance of research to local Saudi leaders. In an environment where most of the problem-solving is done through consultancy projects, it is crucial to familiarize local leadership with the vast opportunity that they can access by opening up to research-based local problem solving approaches. In addition, it is important for the WDRC to highlight the value of the Saudi-based work force in providing solutions and to bring the message across that the WDRC is a partner that can offer practical solutions for market rooted problems by offering short to long-term research support for current and future materials and process development. Globally, the WDRC should inform potential industry partners that they are engaged in world-class research and provide solutions not only of local relevance but also of global significance. The unique combination of highly trained human resources, state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, access to the Red Sea, advanced piloting facilities and collaboration with other research centers at KAUST and government entities in-Kingdom help the WDRC create world-class solutions for the challenges currently facing the water desalination and reuse industry. Q: Industry-university collaborations can be challenging to start and implement, as the language between academia and business often requires extensive translation to be effective. What are the main challenges that are currently facing the WDRC for industrial collaboration projects? A: The WDRC is facing its challenges head on and with patience. One of the bigger challenges is the cost of research at the local level. The WDRC is looking into solutions to overcome this challenge by devising cost recovery models and value propositions that meet the specific needs of individual partners. KAUST has been able to develop IP that is of high value for its partners by working closely with the KAUST Technology Transfer office (TTO), allowing companies to benefit from sponsored research agreements with the WDRC in a competitive manner with existing IP transfer frameworks in Europe and the U.S. One difference is that the majority of the royalties of any created patent belong to the inventor, a key element in the success to commercialize inventions at KAUST. WDRC News | Spring 2016


Another challenge that the WDRC has successfully faced is the development of a framework for tripartite collaboration among international partners, Saudi actors and the WDRC to facilitate R&D-applicable solutions that are tailored to the Saudi market needs. This has been accomplished through its Center Industry Affiliates Program (CIAP), which has been in existence now for six years. Here, industry and Saudi water-related organizations meet to discuss solutions and multi-party collaborations.

Q: How would you evaluate the evolution of the WDRC in terms of industry-aligned project development and research in the past years? A: I find this an important question. There is definitely an evolution in the WDRC’s approach to industrial collaboration. Given that KAUST is only six years old, initially there were multiple thrusts to comprehensively capture all areas that are necessary for water desalination and reuse. Over the years, a few topics have been consolidated as the backbone of research and development at the WDRC. In the meantime, the WDRC has learned quite a few lessons in terms of the interests of local government and industry. One of the positive points of the WDRC is its continuous flexible evolution. To illustrate, a recent example is the focus on aquaculture, which is a strong area of business emerging in the Kingdom, and consequently for the Center, it represents an opportunity to be a main player. Another area of interest is water desalination and reuse using renewable energy, which continues to gain importance both globally and locally. The WDRC is developing technologies that are increasingly being used for these applications. In the past six years, ground reality, focused talent and the priorities of water needs in the region have sharpened industry collaboration at the WDRC.


SAUDI WATER & ELECTRICITY FORUM Participants at the Saudi Water & Electricity Forum 2016 discussed the important overriding issues within the industry with key stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. Exhibition and technical sessions ran alongside the forum, giving visitors a look into technologies that will supplement the future growth of industry. The WDRC exhibited at the forum as part of the KAUST booth, where a large number of government, industry, academic and general visitors were received. H.E. Abdullah A. Al Hussayen, former minister of water & electricity, attended the booth where WDRC Ph.D. student Mohammed Albloushi briefly described his research activities at the Center. The power and water sectors in the Kingdom are more interesting than ever as KSA is taking steps to ramp up capacity and will be transforming the industries in the coming years.

WDRC News | Spring 2016



PHYSICS & CHEMISTRIES AT HYDROPHOBIC INTERFACES From February 14 to 17, 2016, the WDRC organized the International Conference on Physics & Chemistries at Hydrophobic Interfaces. Thirty renowned scientists along with 30 graduate/postdoctoral researchers from various international universities shared their work. In addition, delegates from regional universities and the WDRC’s industrial partners also participated. This event was funded by the KAUST Office of Sponsored Research and was co-sponsored by the KAUST Industry Collaboration Program (KICP), Industry Engagement Office. The main objectives of this conference were: 1. To bring together the best experimentalists and theorists in the field to share their work on the latest and the most advanced developments on hydrophobic interfaces; and 2. To foster collaborations between KAUST researchers and external colleagues. The four-day event included the participation of the following keynote speakers: Prof. Jacob Israelachvili-University of California Santa Barbara, U.S. Prof. Shekhar Garde-Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, U.S. Prof. Mischa Bonn-Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Germany Prof. James Beattie-The University of Sydney, Australia Prof. Daniel Bonn-University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands Prof. Derek Chan-University of Melbourne, Australia Prof. Agustin Colussi-California Institute of Technology, U.S. Prof. Peter Pohl-Johannes Kepler University, Austria Prof. Clayton Radke-University of California, Berkeley, U.S. Thirty renowned scientists along with 30 graduate/postdoctoral researchers from various international universities also shared their work.

WDRC News | Spring 2016



On the initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture of Saudi Arabia, a forum was organized on investment opportunities in aquaculture, with the ultimate aim of boosting food security in the Kingdom. Aquaculture is currently considered the most promising national sector for food production, food security and employment opportunities by the government. Because of this, a reform program has been launched by the government to encourage private sector participation in a more open and competitive economy. The Fisheries and Aquaculture Sector Development Plan has set an annual production target of 600,000 tonnes by 2030 (the current level is less than 30,000 tonnes per year). The forum focused on state-of-the-art technologies in marine aquaculture and investment mechanisms in a relatively new business area for Saudi Arabia, highlighting opportunities for private sector investment. The Minister of Agriculture stated that the forum aims to highlight available investment opportunities for environmentally responsible development of the aquaculture sector.

H.E. Eng. Abdulrahman Al-Fadhli, Saudi Arabia’s minister of agriculture, visited the WDRC on January 26. Prof. Leiknes briefed him on the WDRC’s research and facilities. KAUST Ph.D. student Ryan Lefers joined the tour to demonstrate the greenhouse dehumidification for irrigation projects that focuses on improving the growth performance of typical greenhouse crops while coupling hydroponics, aquaponics and recycling aquaculture systems in the concept. The research also focuses on growing the crops under controlled environment, temperature and humidity conditions.

The KAUST Water Desalination and Reuse Center has launched a new website that has a new look, content and connectivity. Click here to learn more and let us know what you think.

Dr. Assiyeh A. Tabatabai was recently appointed as industrial research officer for the WDRC. Dr. Tabatabai is in charge of all WDRC industryrelated activities, including the CIAP program, as well as overseeing the pilot facilities at the WDRC.

WDRC has gone social! Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to stay up to date with our latest news, events and activities.

Water Desalination and Reuse Center King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Thuwal 23955-6900, Saudi Arabia WDRC News | Spring 2016

Director: TorOve Leiknes • Coordinator: Laura Ochoa • Contact: +966 (0) 12 808 4967


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