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XPRIZE water scarcity $150M competition challenge launched to innovate desalination solutions

How XPRIZE Is Disrupting Desalination Tech to Address the Global Water Crisis

  • The 5-year, $150M competition with a $119M prize purse is designed to create new desalination solutions that increase access to clean water globally.

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Xprize
XPRIZE is an established global leader in designing, launching, and executing large-scale competitions to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. Our mission is to inspire and empower humanity to achieve breakthroughs.

 XPRIZE, the world’s leader in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges, today launches XPRIZE Water Scarcity. Made possible by a $150M investment from the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative, this 5-year global competition, with a $119M total prize purse, is designed to drive widespread access to clean water by creating reliable, sustainable, and affordable seawater desalination solutions. Competing teams will aim to develop technologies that can responsibly expand access to the water contained in Earth’s seas and oceans, positively impacting billions of people globally, and creating a world where clean water is more equitably available and sustainably abundant. 

Water is essential for life on Earth. 70% of our planet is covered in water, yet virtually everyone on Earth is experiencing some form of water stress; right now, only 0.5% of our planet’s water is available to support 8 billion people. As our freshwater supplies are rapidly diminishing due to various factors, including climate change and the impact of agricultural and industrial uses, many major cities around the world are approaching “Day Zero,” the day their water supply is estimated to run out. As a result, populations face threats of stricter water rationing, sanitation and hygiene issues, environmental and economic damage, and conflict for resources.

With seas and oceans holding over 96% of Earth’s water, seawater desalination has become an increasingly attractive option for providing reliable access to water for countries and communities around the world. However, current desalination technologies lack the efficiency, affordability, and sustainability to generate clean water at the scale that will be required to address rapidly rising water scarcity around the globe. Current desalination plants also predominantly operate using fossil fuels and water treatment materials that raise sustainability concerns, while water intake and brine output processes can have a negative impact on vulnerable marine ecosystems.

“While a small number of countries are using advanced desalination solutions to supply their citizens with clean water, innovation in seawater desalination has been largely stagnant; current solutions remain too expensive and are not cost-effectively scalable to be able to meaningfully benefit the majority of the world,” said Anousheh Ansari, chief executive officer, XPRIZE. “The world needs a cutting-edge breakthrough to make desalination a more cost-effective and sustainable solution that could be adopted more widely around the world, enabling people and the environment to prosper.”

His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative, said: “Increasing water scarcity is a growing threat to global security and prosperity that demands a decisive and coordinated response from the international community. The establishment of XPRIZE Water Scarcity is consistent with the ambition of the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative to raise the importance of water scarcity on the global agenda and to help accelerate the development and deployment of transformative new solutions to this urgent challenge.”

With seas and oceans holding over 96% of Earth’s water, seawater desalination has become an increasingly attractive option for providing reliable access to water for countries and communities around the world

XPRIZE Water Scarcity is the first competition of its kind focused on disrupting desalination systems at this scale. The prize incentivizes competing teams to create new solutions that are measurably more affordable, reliable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient in a changing climate than existing methods. Teams will rethink desalination systems, methods, and materials to find ways of providing more safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable water in support of fast-growing population centers and other communities around the world.

“With global water demand projected to outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, the timeliness of this competition couldn’t be more crucial. We’re confident this prize will initiate a necessary step-change in desalination efforts to help address global water scarcity,” said Lauren Greenlee, executive vice president of Food + Water + Waste, XPRIZE. “We know that breakthroughs can come from anywhere, and by focusing on system-level innovation and flexible criteria alongside exploration of novel materials, our goal is to broaden inputs from a wide variety of fields and evaluate all possible solutions.”

"Desalination is poised for enormous growth in the 21st century as communities, industries, and countries diversify their water supplies and make their water systems more resilient against climate change,” said Dr. Peter S. Fiske, executive director, National Alliance for Water Innovation. “By attracting innovators from around the world to focus on making desalination more energy efficient, cost effective, and environmentally beneficial, I am optimistic that XPRIZE Water Scarcity will lead to a burst of innovation and cost reduction for this critical technology." 

“Sustainable and affordable desalination systems are crucial as we work toward securing sources of freshwater worldwide to offset global water scarcity,” said Shannon McCarthy, Secretary General, the International Desalination and Reuse Association. “I’m confident the dynamic XPRIZE to address Water Scarcity will incentivize game-changing innovation in the desalination community and the breakthroughs we need to address the accelerating water challenges around the world, ensuring water for all.” 

This multi-track competition centers around a core track to rethink the desalination system. The winning team will reliably and most sustainably generate one million liters of potable water per day (1,000 m3/d) from seawater at the lowest cost, below a target benchmark to ensure global accessibility, over the course of 1 year; sufficient to support 10,000 people (based on WHO Standards). The Novel Membrane Materials track will pursue the search for the perfect membrane to cut the cost of water production and increase reliability and sustainability, paving a future path to extend the lifetime of existing seawater reverse osmosis desalination plants. 

The title sponsor of XPRIZE Water Scarcity is the Mohamed bin Zayed Water Initiative, which is dedicated to raising awareness of water scarcity and increasing its prioritization on the international agenda while accelerating the development, testing and deployment at scale of transformative and sustainable technological solutions to this global challenge.

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