Biodesalination: Light-Powered Salt Removal from Water

Water scarcity is a serious concern in many places around the world. We have seen this past year in the
international news how major food producing areas in the Unites States have suffered from a once in a
lifetime drought. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), water scarcity is seen as a challenge to the projected
economic and social growth of the country. As such, the Government of Abu Dhabi, and the Federal
Government of the UAE has taken steps to increase the awareness of the pressing water challenges by
implementing social awareness programs and by investing heavily in infrastructure and industries that
adopt the latest, most efficient processes for obtaining fresh water for its citizens.

Photosynthetic desalination by cyanobacteria, or other photosynthetic microbes, is a novel process by
which microbes are used to desalinate water by light driven reactions. These photosynthetic microbial
desalination cells (PMDCs) hold much promise as sustainable and renewable methods for partially or fully
desalinate water for human and agriculture consumption. Work to date hints at the potential for
commercial scale up of these PMDCs. Some of the challenges that the current work faces are (1) the
photosynthetic organisms under study are not robust enough to withstand the PMDC operating
conditions for extended periods of time and (2) the efficiency of the system could be improved if the
photosynthetic organism used could operate under a wider range of salinity and temperature conditions.
This work aims to investigate the potential of high heat and salinity tolerant microorganisms from the UAE
extreme arid environment for use in PMDCs. Specifically; we are going to investigate how photosynthetic
microorganisms found in the UAE’s sabkhas salt crusts can enhance the PMDCs operational efficiency.

This research will:
1. Isolate, identify and characterize photosynthetic microorganisms.
2. Design and construct PMDCs specifically built to take advantage of the robust features of the
isolated microorganism.
3. Optimize and scale up the PMDCs to maximize the desalination process of the photosynthetic
microorganisms.