MIT team wins prize for machine that desalinates water

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team has won the grand prize of $140,000 in an engineering competition to come up with technology to make salt water drinkable, according to an announcement from USAID. (Tweet This)

Weeds grow in dry cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake McClure in La Grange, Calif.
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Weeds grow in dry cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake McClure in La Grange, Calif.

A total of five teams competed for $200,000 in the Desal Prize competition, which sought the best way to take brackish water, or briny inland water, and make it consumable by humans and crops. The contest's purpose was to give a boost to the developing world—and maybe to drought-stricken California.

Read MoreEngineers compete to make salt water drinkable

The teams competed April 9-11 in head-to-head demonstrations at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's brackish groundwater desalination research facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico. USAID's U.S. Global Development Lab provided most of the funding for the Desal Prize.

A team from the University of Texas-El Paso placed second, winning $60,000. The top three finishers will get a chance to receive $400,000 in USAID grants to pilot their technologies.

Photovoltaic power

The MIT team, which includes participants from India's Jain Irrigation Systems, designed a photovoltaic-powered electrodialysis reversal system that desalinates water using electricity to pull charged particles out of the water. It also further disinfects water using ultraviolet rays.

The announcement from USAID said the MIT-Jain system was designed for low energy consumption, thereby limiting costs, especially in areas without easy access to electricity.

Desalination is one of several ideas that have been proposed to combat California's four-year drought, though experts point out that the process is still expensive and can create its own environmental problems.