Desalination startup in Southwest Utah addresses world’s water crisis
It started with a few explosions.
After watching a film about worldwide water shortages in his high school biology class, then-14-year-old Hunter Manz began building machines to solve the problem. The tinkering in his family’s Las Vegas garage didn’t always end well.
“Some of the machines would catch on fire or blow up,” said Manz, now 24. “So my parents wanted to find somebody who could help guide me.”
That mentor ended up guiding him to the mechanical engineering department at Utah Tech University in St. George. That’s where Manz came up with the idea behind his Washington County-based startup, Eden Technologies.
Around the world, desalination plants extract freshwater from saltwater by pushing it through a series of filters at high pressure. But those plants are typically less than 50% efficient, Manz said, meaning for each gallon of seawater they process, they create less than a half-gallon of freshwater. That leaves a lot of salty leftovers, which are often pumped back into the ocean.
Manz’s idea aims to wring more drinkable water from the leftovers by adding a centrifuge toward the end of the desalination process. Think of a giant metal salad spinner that rotates rapidly, pushing the salty brine to the edges and leaving freshwater in the center.
Because desalination plants can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and tens of millions of dollars per year to power, the price tag has kept this potential source out of reach for many dry parts of the world. Eden Technologies’ tests show its centrifuge could roughly double the efficiency of desalination plants, Manz said, which would make them more financially viable.
A new $250,000 investment from the Utah Innovation Fund — a state-backed program aiming to boost local startups affiliated with post-secondary schools in the state — could help the company take its next steps toward that target.
“Our main focus is lowering the price now, making it more affordable to people around the world, and then eventually aiming to make it free,” Manz said.
The long-term goal is to get to 88% efficiency, leaving just 12% as waste — a concentrated brine filled with sought-after minerals like lithium and magnesium. Being able to sell those elements could eventually discount the entire price of the plant, he said, meaning the freshwater would essentially become “the byproduct of the brine mining.”
The new technology may provide other environmental benefits, too. If the briny wastewater from a desalination plant isn’t diluted properly when it’s pumped back into the ocean, it can harm marine life. But if the waste becomes so concentrated that it’s a valuable mining commodity, Manz said, that could reduce how much of it is sent back to the sea and may also decrease the need to mine for materials like lithium in the ground — a practice that carries its own environmental concerns.
Despite a worldwide need for more freshwater and a prototype that shows potential, he said, Eden Technologies found it hard to get private investors on board because desalination can’t scale as quickly as something like a new software.
“We have to build a facility. We have to do research and development,” Manz said. “The process takes a lot longer, and it's hard to find investors nowadays that are willing to go through that.”
That’s why getting the big investment from the state fund makes such a difference, he said. The company will use the money to build a larger prototype of its centrifuge, which it plans to test at its Washington County warehouse and the San Rafael Energy Research Center before delivering it to an actual desalination plant. The company is already talking with potential clients from Saudi Arabia to the Navajo Nation about putting the technology to work, Manz said.
Utah Innovation Fund managing director Gabi Tellez said getting investment in the early stages can be tough for new startups, especially ones that need a longer runway to become profitable.
“There's this gap in funding between your traditional grant and then venture capital money,” she said. “So it's really serving to bridge that gap.”
Created by HB 42 in the 2023 Utah Legislative session, the fund takes $15 million the state earned in investments years ago and puts it toward today’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Any returns it pulls in from the startups go back into a pot for future investments, Tellez said.
The program goes beyond financial support, too. It connects companies with a database of experienced people to add to their leadership team or their board of advisors, she said. The fund’s managers also meet with venture capital firms outside of Utah to highlight what’s coming in the pipeline here and find out what benchmarks startups need to hit before firms would consider investing.
The fact that the fund’s first investment is going to a company in southwest Utah, she said, reflects its goal to boost entrepreneurship in cities and universities beyond the Wasatch Front.
“Some of the most innovative things are happening at some of the schools that maybe would traditionally be overlooked,” Tellez said. “We are here to support the whole state. And … we plan to continue doing that.”