Engineering professor Yoram Cohen addresses well-wishers who came to see a mobile treatment plant that's designed to purify agricultural runoff and groundwater in rural and sparsely populated areas. HauChee Chung/UCLA.
Engineering professor Yoram Cohen addresses well-wishers who came to see a mobile treatment plant that's designed to purify agricultural runoff and groundwater in rural and sparsely populated areas. HauChee Chung/UCLA.

UCLA Engineering’s mobile plant hits the road to treat polluted water

By Bill Kisliu
Originally posted in UCLA Newsroom

A rolling water treatment plant designed by UCLA researchers made a pit stop on campus this week before heading north to the San Joaquin Valley, where it will help address California’s inadequate water supply.

The first of its kind, the plant, installed in a 40-foot cargo container, is designed to desalinate and purify as much as 27,000 gallons of agricultural runoff and groundwater a day. That’s equivalent to the average daily water use of about 90 U.S. families.

The technology was developed by Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of the UCLA Water Technology Research Center.

Engineering Dean Vijay Dhir gets a tour of the mobile plant from professor Yoram Cohen. John Vande Wege/UCLA

The plant, called the Smart Integrated Membrane System – Brackish Water (SIMS-BW), is a demonstration-scale field lab designed to test purification and desalination technologies developed at UCLA. The unit contains pre-treatment and reverse-osmosis filtration systems for groundwater and agricultural runoff, and can turn 10 gallons of water high in salt and pollutants into 8.5 gallons of drinkable water.

Cohen emphasized that the system can be operated remotely by computer, tablet or smartphone, an important factor since the goal is to provide high-quality water in rural and sparsely populated areas.

On Wednesday morning, Cohen and UCLA Engineering Dean Vijay K. Dhir welcomed officials from state and federal water agencies, as well as industry partners on the project, to inaugurate the plant.

Dhir pointed out that UCLA Engineering, the birthplace of the Internet, developed the first reverse-osmosis desalination technology more than 50 years ago.

“Professor Cohen has married the two technologies,” Dhir said.

Next stop for the mobile water treatment plant: farmland in the Panoche Drainage District near Firebaugh, California, west of Fresno.

Panoche is one of five rural water districts, together with the California Department of Water Resources, supporting the project. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation provided significant funding for the plant.

Companies that provided equipment or support for the SIMS-BW include BWA Water Additives, CJI Process Systems, GF Signet, Grundfos Pumps Corp., Inge Watertechnologies and Toray Industries.

Panagiotis Christofides, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and his students also worked on the project.

Andi Rahardianto, an assistant researcher in Cohen’s lab who designed the mobile unit, said it will spend at least three months in the Panoche Drainage District and then move around the San Joaquin Valley as a lab on the go, operating with different water and soil conditions.