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Close-up: Jon Loveland

Lifelong fascination with water leads engineer to desalination

He's not sitting on a clear lake fishing in New Hampshire, but the memory of doing so growing up is one of the inspirations to Jon Loveland's career of turning originally undrinkable water into something fresh, clean and useful.

Loveland is the vice president of technical services for Poseidon Resources, the developer building a seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad -- the first facility of its kind in San Diego County.

He's a water guy. He's a chemistry guy. Using chemistry, Loveland will help Poseidon bring to San Diego County an estimated 7 percent of its drinking water from a source primarily untapped in the past: the Pacific Ocean. If California -- and much of the world, even -- dedicated enough of its trust, and yes, resources, into desalination technology, it would virtually never face a fresh water shortage.

In December 2012, the U.S. Department of Interior released the results of a three-year-long study on the Colorado River Basin's long-term supply and demand. It projected water shortages averaging 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060 that could only be mitigated through action. A number of things have affected that balance, including growing populations requiring more water from the Colorado River.

Jon Loveland, the brains behind Poseidon Resources' new desalination plant in Carlsbad. Staff photo by Sarah Strong.

Loveland indicated that whatever the weights apportioned to the causes of projected shortages, there's no logical reason for the state to accept water shortages in the future -- not with potable re-use and desalination technologies advancing as they have, and not with one of the world's largest banks of water at California's doorstep.

"I like to tell people there will be far many other breaks on economic development and growth other than water supply," Loveland said. "You can look at cost of living, transportation, food supply."

That holds true, he believes, for any population living within reasonable proximity to a coast.

"And demographic trends around the world -- already something like 75 to 80 percent of the world's population lives within 25, 50 miles of the coast, and that's only increasing," Loveland said.

The advantage of both indirect potable re-use and seawater desalination, Loveland said, is that they are both highly sustainable. People who live away from the coast will have to turn to water recycling, he added.

There are about 20 sites along the California coast that have potential right now for energy-efficient and environmentally safe desalination, Loveland said. But even if all were fully developed, Loveland believes the production would still be a fraction of the state's supply, putting in perspective how further technological advances will have to come along for an even higher potential.

Loveland has been working to find the potential, and maximize it.

The advantage of the Carlsbad site is that the plant will be built to use resources from already existing infrastructure at NRG Energy's Encina Power Station. The desalination project is being built on leased land on a 6-acre corner of the power plant's plot, which sits on the edge of Agua Hedionda Lagoon. The power station uses water from the lagoon to cool its power generators. And it's from that source of already-moved water that the desalination facility will pull its source water.

"[NRG Energy is] already pumping this water for their own purposes, so it's almost viewed as we're using their wastewater discharge, even though the water's perfectly fine as a source for a drinking water plant," Loveland said.

Utilizing the power plant's infrastructure saves about a third of the project costs, because there's no need to build intakes and outfalls into the ocean. Most coastal power plants in California have a similar potential for redevelopment on unused land, Loveland said.

The plant will obtain its power from the San Diego Gas & Electric grid, but because of science, it will need less power than what the same plant would have required just 10 or 15 years ago. That means technological advancement, Loveland said, but he emphasizes that it's not untested technology.

"In terms of technology for the plant, one thing that's important to remember about this plant is it has to use proven technologies that are reliable," he said.

Reverse osmosis is the necessary component of the filtration process to remove the salt from seawater. That's been around awhile, but it's become more efficient. Normally what happens when a fresh water solution and saltwater solution are put in contact with one another, the saltwater solution will be drawn into the fresh water solution to balance the combined solution out, Loveland said. That's osmosis.

"Thermodynamically speaking, they're trying to equalize the chemical potential," Loveland said. "The reason it's called reverse osmosis is that we have to prevent the fresh water from flowing in to dilute the salt water. So we have to apply this pressure -- reverse osmosis. We basically have to push the water through the membrane faster than you push salt through the membrane.

The differential rate between how quickly water goes through the membrane versus salt is how two products are produced, one being salt and the other fresh water.

Loveland earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and a master's degree in the same field at the University of Colorado, Boulder, while also further studying in UCB's Ph.D. program in environmental engineering.

"The type of environmental engineering I did was more or less advanced water chemistry," he said.

In a nutshell, he studied the chemistry and physics behind particles and colloids, which are nano-sized particles. Now in the construction phase of the Carlsbad project, his expertise has primarily shifted from the scientific engineering to more bricks-and-mortar engineering. But the two still go hand in hand. He managed Poseidon's development consultants on the project, and now is managing the design and construction activities.

Part of his job since joining Poseidon was to ensure that a good team was assembled for the work leading up to a construction start. The process of selecting a contractor was undertaken three different times, he said, and Poseidon went with a large and well-known contractor in the Kiewit-Shea joint venture. He also has placed his trust in partner IDE Technologies Ltd., a specialist in desalination technology.

Poseidon has intellectual property patents related to taking cooling water from a power plant and using it for its desalination purposes, Loveland said.

"It's high-tech. It's not common in the U.S. yet, but it's also not ... this isn't a research project. We're not testing some novel technology that hasn't been proven," he said.

IDE is known for designing and operating plants around the world that stand out in terms of per-unit power consumption, he added. Poseidon will be using in Carlsbad a proprietary version of media filters -- used to pretreat the water before it goes through reverse osmosis -- that come with what Loveland calls some "unique" features designed by IDE.

"How you manage, how you design and manage that process specifically is tailored to seawater desal pretreatment," Loveland said. "But to the typical observer, it looks just like a media filtration plant that Metropolitan Water District owns and operates."

Using 8-inch elements, Poseidon will employ just more than 15,000 spiral-wound, thin-film composite reverse osmosis membranes in the Carlsbad plant. The type and configuration of the technology being used by Poseidon is the best the company can obtain at this time, Loveland said. But, he added that that does not mean it's not well-used and understood.

What has improved, he said, is the quality and type of membranes used, and they consume less energy in Poseidon's configuration. That may be good news to those worried about public costs related to the new facility.

There's also been steady advancement in the seawater pretreatment as well, allowing the long-term operation of the reverse osmosis system to see additional energy and cost reductions. The more advanced pretreatment filters, combined with the qualities built within the reverse osmosis membranes, Loveland said, yield those membranes a life expectancy of around eight to 10 years.

"Energy recovery devices have gotten to be more efficient," he said. "They used to be able to recover only about 75 percent of the energy that was left in the process. Now they can recover about 95 percent of the energy that's left."

The technologies began as roughly similar to the technologies of a turbocharger on a vehicle, he said.

"You can take your waste concentrate stream to spin an impeller that then pressurizes the raw water coming in," Loveland said. "But that technology used to look like a turbocharger, then a Pelton wheel. And now it looks like a very energy-efficient transfer device."

Combined, the advancements have led to production costs that are roughly two-thirds to 75 percent lower than what they were just a decade ago, Loveland said.

Through a pilot project at the desalination project site and 10 years of developmental planning, the Poseidon team has a good understanding of the source water at Carlsbad and the best team possible to build the plant, Loveland said.

Both are critical components to producing the expected result, he added.

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