UC Merced researchers working on innovative way to desalinate ag water

MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- A new project at UC Merced is focusing on irrigation water.

The work could have a significant impact on the crops that are grown throughout the Central Valley.

"We're trying to take two problems and come up with one solution out of the two of them. We have an excess of drainage water which has excess salt in it, and we need cooling of agricultural greenhouses," says assistant professor James Palko.

The concern is that the built-up salt from irrigation water is decreasing crop productivity and threatening the ag industry's long-term sustainability.

That's why a team of researchers that includes three UC Merced professors and graduate students is working to develop an innovative way to remove salt and reuse agricultural drainage water. They say current desalination options are not cost-effective for farmers.

"The cost can be really high because the technology is almost the same as the technology used for the drinking water treatment," says associate professor Yanbao Ma.

The team plans to tackle this challenge by developing a saltwater greenhouse system that treats seawater or brackish wastewater for use in food production in the greenhouse itself, as well as outdoor crops.

"The most efficient way to cool agricultural greenhouses is the same way we cool ourselves by sweating - by perspiring and evaporating the water into the air so by using the ag drainage water that is heavy in salt, we can provide a source of cooling water and at the same time dispose of the drainage water that otherwise is problematic to put into rivers," says Palko.

The research is being funded through a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Staff members say it's an incredible opportunity for students to be on the cutting edge of an issue that directly affects our local community.

"I'm very excited to be part of that project. It's really nice that it just started when I arrived here to the university, and I'm looking forward to the next 2 years of research," says grad student Selina Brinkmann.
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