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BGU: A Water Innovator

BGU: A Water Innovator

June 8, 2016

Desert & Water Research

Physics Today — In the midst of scarcity, Israel has become a model of sustainable water infrastructure. BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research is at the forefront of continuing the country’s water innovation, and sharing it with the world.

“The problem is providing access to clean drinking water,” says Zuckerberg Institute Director Prof. Noam Weisbrod.

1a-Noam's favorite uncropped

Prof. Noam Weisbrod

Through a rural water development program, BGU has sent faculty and students to Ethiopia, Uganda and other African nations to provide low-tech, inexpensive fixes such as drilling wells and installing pumps.

Israel is also known for pioneering modern reverse osmosis (RO) methods, a process developed at BGU in the 1960s.

A major problem with RO, however, is biofouling. Over time, the growth and accumulation of microorganisms will slow the flux of water through RO filters. That’s why the Zuckerberg Institute is developing hydrogels to coat the filter membranes and halt biofouling.

“The hydrogels mimic jellyfish flesh, which is impervious to biofouling,” says Prof. Moshe Herzberg of the Institute’s Department of Desalination and Water Treatment.


A device developed at BGU distills nitrogen from manure to produce liquid fertilizer that can be applied by drip irrigation.
Photo: David Kramer

BGU innovation is also evident in wastewater (or graywater) treatment and reuse for irrigation. University researchers have recently confirmed that graywater can be used safely to irrigate crops and gardens.

“Worldwide, about 60 percent of water used in agriculture is lost through evaporation, runoff, drainage, or leakage,” says Dr. Naftali Lazarovitch of the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands.

A great deal of this loss is alleviated through Israeli drip irrigation, which delivers water, including treated wastewater, directly to the root zone of plants and crops.

To further improve drip irrigation efficiency, BGU researchers developed a simple capillary barrier that blocks water flow from roots. It consists of a layer of gravel placed in the bottoms of shallow trenches that are just below the root zone of bell peppers. The trenches are then backfilled with soil. Bell pepper yields improved by 25 percent, and water usage was reduced.

Prof. Jhonathan Ephrath, also of the Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands, is taking runoff irrigation a step further by growing an olive tree grove in the desert using only runoff from the very infrequent rains.

Olive Grove-big size

Called catchment irrigation, the 2000-year-old practice works because barren soils don’t readily absorb water, so some of it can be directed to the trees.

“The Israeli water program has got to be the most advanced in the world,” says U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

BGU and the Zuckerberg Institute are making sure it stays that way.

This post is excerpted from a story by David Kramer, who participated in AABGU’s 2016 Murray Fromson Media Mission.

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