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John Webley again sits in the same Petaluma office building where he served 15 years ago as a vice president for Advanced Fibre Communication.

But Webley, the owner of Santa Rosa's landmark McDonald Mansion, is no longer a Telecom Valley entrepreneur in a company that eventually grew to more than 700 workers. Instead, he works now as the CEO of Trevi Systems, a small startup trying to dramatically reduce the energy needed to make fresh water from the world's oceans and brackish groundwater.

This spring, Trevi, which operates in an office park along North McDowell Boulevard, has won two awards to build pilot desalination systems in California and the Middle East.

The 4-year-old startup was selected as one of four international companies to each construct a pilot seawater desalination plant in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. As well, the California Energy Commission has awarded Trevi a $1.7 million grant to build a pilot desalination system in Orange County to clean treated wastewater before the liquid is pumped into deep aquifers for reuse as groundwater.

Both awards provide Trevi, a company of 20 workers, the chance to show that its method can significantly lower the cost of removing salt from water.

A typical desalination plant today costs about $100 million for construction and consumes another $200 million worth of electricity over 20 years, Webley said.

A "forward osmosis" plant built using Trevi's method likely would cost the same amount to build, he said. But the company seeks to produce the same volume of drinking water with just $30 million worth of power.

Webley helped start both Advanced Fibre and Turin Networks, two telecom companies that eventually were purchased by or merged with other enterprises. Admirers see him as entrepreneur who understands both business and technology.

"In a word, it's gold to have John here," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "That spirit of innovation and that genius for making things happen is rare."

Trained as an electronics engineer, Webley admits to being attracted to a challenge vastly different from his work with at least five telecom startups.

"The element of the unknown is great," he said of his new endeavor. "I thrive on that."

But the native South African also said that global demand for clean drinking water is a problem worth tackling.

The United Nations estimates that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in areas with water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population will face "water stressed conditions."

Trevi will build its pilot systems at a time when desalination is an established, though expensive, process for providing water to some of the driest regions on earth.

Water suppliers have built about 16,000 desalination plants around the world, largely in the Middle East. The Associated Press reported last week that roughly 35 percent of Israel's drinking-quality water now comes from desalination, and that number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050.

The U.S. now ranks fourth as the largest producer of desalinated water, behind Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Spain, according to the International Desalination Association. But America looks to a different source than the Middle East for its water sources.

"In the U.S., we don't do very much seawater desalination," said Tom Davis, director of the Center for Inland Desalination Systems at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Instead, most of the plants here clean up brackish groundwater, which contains a fraction of the salt found in seawater and, thus, requires much less energy for processing. However, Tampa, Fla., has a large seawater desalination plant, and a $1 billion plant is under construction on the coast at Carlsbad in San Diego County.

This spring, amid California's third year of drought, the state Department of Water Resources released a map showing 13 other proposed desalination plants along the coast, from Monterey Bay to the Mexican border. Also included was a Bay Area proposal to remove salt from brackish water.

The most common method of desalination today is reverse osmosis, though many plants still use various methods of distillation. Both ways take considerable energy.

Trevi takes a different approach to using osmosis, the tendency of water to be drawn through a permeable membrane from a less salty solution to a more concentrated one. For example, Davis said, if you leave your finger in the ocean, water from your body will be drawn through your skin into the salty drink.

Reverse osmosis uses intense pressure to force salt water through a series of filters that act as microscopic sieves. With pressure of 700 pounds per square inch or greater, fresh water passes through the membrane while the salt stays behind.

In contrast, forward osmosis separates the water by the natural process of drawing it into an even more concentrated salt solution, leaving behind the sea salts. The water drawn across the membrane filter initially resides in a solution that is still more salty than the ocean water.

Desalination can still occur when special salts are used for the "draw" solution. When heated, those salts separate from the water.

Some forward osmosis systems use ammonium carbonate, a key ingredient in smelling salts, or related compounds. When heated, those salts turn into ammonia and carbon dioxide gases, which can be captured and reused.

But Trevi is using a different, unnamed salt compound that Webley says requires less energy and doesn't leave any residual ammonia taste.

When heated, this secret compound turns to a solid and sinks to the bottom of the solution. That allows fresh, drinkable water to be skimmed off the top.

A few companies are using forward osmosis in special applications, including to clean water extracted with fossil fuels in the process known as "fracking." However, Davis said, it has yet to be used on a large scale to provide drinking water.

Webley, who is known for opening up his McDonald Mansion grounds to the public at Halloween, met those seeking to start Trevi in 2010 and provided them a small amount of seed funding through a local business incubator he runs called Innovative Labs.

He helped form the company that same year and since has brought in a small group of North Bay investors, including Telecom Valley pioneer Don Green. The company has raised $5.5 million since its inception, Webley said.

To test its approach, Trevi needed to find a ready source of seawater, something that normally requires state permits. Instead, the company received permission from the U.S. Navy to set up a pilot system at a naval base at Port Hueneme in Ventura County.

The system there produced a cubic meter of fresh water a day — about 264 gallons. Its operation was monitored by a third-party researcher.

The results of that 18-month test led to the opportunities of the pilot projects in Abu Dhabi and Southern California. Each of those systems will be 100 times larger than the Port Hueneme model, producing 26,400 gallons of fresh water a day.

The UAE project is being overseen by Masdar, a subsidiary of a government-created company. A company official said the UAE wants to demonstrate that desalination can run efficiently enough to be powered by solar or other renewable energy.

"Seawater desalination is an energy intensive process that if left unchecked will become unsustainable over time," Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a UAE state minister and Masdar's chairman, said in a statement. "We must innovate and discover commercially viable solutions to meet our long-term water needs."

The Abu Dhabi system is slated to be built this year at a cost of about $1 million, Webley said. Confidentiality agreements prevent him from revealing the cost-sharing structure, he said.

Of note, the other three companies selected all are regarded as major players in the desalination industry. They are, as Webley put it, "G.E.-class companies."

In Orange County, Trevi will spend $600,000 and the state Energy Commission will provide another $1.7 million for the pilot system to desalinate wastewater. The work will be done in cooperation with the county's Groundwater Replenishment System, one of the world's largest operations for cleansing wastewater before pumping it back underground for future use as drinking water.

Webley acknowledged that some environmentalists will still object to ocean desalination even if energy costs can be greatly reduced. But he predicted that desalination, along with conservation and reuse, will remain part of the solution for global water scarcity.

For his company to succeed, he said, Trevi now has to build working pilot systems and persuade benefactors that forward osmosis one day could be used at a commercial level.

In practical terms, he said, "I've got to take care of the customer for the next year and a half."

(You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.)


EDITOR'S NOTE: Trevi Systems is testing a "forward osmosis" desalination system. An earlier version of this story contained a photo caption that incorrectly described the technology as "reverse osmosis."

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