19 Innovative Projects Selected In $9 Million Solar Desalination Prize Competition


Having access to a reliable, clean water supply is critical to ensuring health, safety, and economic stability. This is true in the United States and in communities across the globe. But what happens when the most accessible water supply is unusable due to its high salt content?


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) turned a challenge into an opportunity with a prize competition that asks entrepreneurs, engineers, and innovators from across the country to come up with a solution by designing solar-thermal-powered desalination systems.

A map of the United States with pinpoints at various cities across the country.
Nineteen teams were named winners of the Solar Desalination Prize Innovation Contest, each earning $50,000 in cash prizes and continuing on to the next contest.

On Oct. 19, DOE announced the 19 Innovation Contest winners of the Solar Desalination Prize, a $9 million prize competition designed to increase access to fresh water and strengthen water security in the United States.


Launched in September 2019, the Solar Desalination Prize challenges competitors in four competitions to develop novel thermal desalination systems that can purify water with high salt concentrations while minimizing energy use.


Using solar-thermal desalination to clean nontraditional water sources also offers a new pathway to generating water for municipal, agricultural, and industrial use.

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In the Innovation Contest, participants submitted concepts with a pathway to manufacturing and commercialization. By the end of the competition, the teams will have designed a solar-thermal desalination system, obtained the necessary permitting and approval documents, built the system, and demonstrated its viability.

Since the competition was announced in April 2020, interest and enthusiasm has been high, with more than 160 entries submitted by the July Innovation phase deadline. Submissions came from a wide range of organizations and individuals, including university-led teams, national labs, and private industry, from all geographic locations.  

Following a thorough review of submissions by technical experts, 19 projects and teams were selected to advance, each winning a $50,000 cash prize. These winners will now advance to the Teaming Contest, where competitors are asked to put together a team of experts to take their concepts one step closer to reality.

“In this contest, it is critical that competitors build out a comprehensive team that can help them achieve the end goal of building a prototype system,” Prize Administrator Sarah Gomach of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) said.

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The Solar Desalination Prize is part of the American-Made Challenges program. It is hosted by NREL and sponsored by the Water Security Grand Challenge, a White House-initiated, DOE-led framework to advance transformational technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure, and affordable water.

Solar Desalination Prize competitors are supported by a diverse network of organizations known as the American-Made Network, a group of national labs, incubators, test facilities, and more that have partnered with the American-Made Challenges program to provide competitors with support and expertise.

“The connections made with network members often prove to be invaluable for startups,” Gomach said. “We are excited for the competitors to engage with organizations in the network, including test and host facilities, moving forward.”

The Teaming Phase of the competition will be open to everyone interested in joining an Innovation Contest-winning team. More details about the Teaming phase will be announced soon.

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