Desalination facilities have critics who claim it's too expensive and environmentally destructive, but there are supporters who want to make existing reverse osmosis technology better and many new ideas are being tested here in Southern California.
"The fact that this is here and it's just a space for innovation that's right on the coast, you have access to water that is completely different than if you try to make it in a lab. It's a great place for validation and innovation," said Madeleine White, an environmental engineer for the Engineering & Expeditionary Warfare Center.
"Before we put it out of arm's length away out in the ocean, we have to have confidence that we know exactly how it's going to operate," explained Peter Stricker, the CEO of SeaWell.
A test skid at the facility uses the same chemical-free, desalination process that will eventually be in place on a buoy, near the shoreline of Vandenberg Space Force Base in 2024. The SeaWell buoys are designed to be more energy efficient than conventional desal plants, in part, because they only transfer freshwater to shore. But also because energy recovery devices use the brine stream to help pressurize the intake water.
"We're in the water surrounded by water and we just bring that element that we treated to shore. The interesting thing though is that we don't have a breakthrough technology that we're relying on to do this," Stricker said.
But they will do things differently. The ocean intake pipes are designed to minimize the impact to marine life. The pressure vessels, which generally rest horizontally, will be installed vertically in the buoy and freshwater will be produced at a much smaller rate. That too is by design for efficiency and flexibility.
"The big picture is that we don't have to have one big plant to serve a large region. We can put them down the shore where the water is needed and not have a lot of delivery pipelines to get it to the customers," Stricker said.
SeaWell is deploying old technology in a new way, hoping to provide 15% of household water needs for coastal California.