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In regions where freshwater is hard to find, its engineering ­alchemy converts oceanic salt­water for drinking and irrigation.

Call it the Rumplestiltskin of the desert. Like the fabled dwarf who could transform straw into gold, IDE, a leader in desalination technologies, turns salt water into fresh water.

The Israeli company supplies 70% of the tiny Middle Eastern country’s potable H2O. Its largest local plant, located just south of Tel Aviv, produces 165 million gallons of freshwater daily. Privately held IDE also builds and operates some of the biggest desalination plants in about 40 other countries, including Mexico, Chile and China. In the U.S., the 51-year-old company recently opened the largest such plant in the Western hemisphere, located in the Southern California city of Carlsbad, near San Diego. The site, a $1 billion undertaking, transforms seawater into potable water in just 45 minutes and provides some 8% of San Diego County’s water. Remarkably, it costs less than 0.5 cents to produce a gallon of drinking water at the Carlsbad plant. The increased cost to homeowners, meanwhile, will average an additional $5 per month. That’s still a lot lower than previous attempts at desalination.

IDE’s secret sauce? Over the years, its Israel-based researchers have developed a wide range of energy- and cost-efficient desalination processes, including using “waste steam” to generate electricity, and a proprietary “pressure center” that allows large plants to perform maintenance via the Internet. Another key innovation is the company’s so-called membranes (the special pipes that separate water from larger salt molecules), which don’t require chemical-intensive cleaning. This makes for a faster, more cost-efficient and environment-friendly desalination process. Given recent water shortages in some regions of the world, a situation aggravated by warming temperatures and climate change, those kinds of breakthroughs are almost as good as gold.

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Avshalom Halevi Felber
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