Building the foundation, S12E2

Group of people.


We travel to Bend, Oregon, to visit the Water and Energy Technologies Laboratory and meet the team inventing a new desalination technology. Bahman Abbasi, associate professor of mechanical engineering, talks about building the lab from the ground up, and graduate student Mohammed Elhashimi demonstrates the team's system. This is the second episode of a four-part season.

Season number
Season 12
Episode number

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, licensed under CC by 3.0] 

ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud. 

[MUSIC: “The Wildcardz,” by Blue Ocean, licensed through]

ROBERTSON: Welcome back to the Quest for Clean Water, I’m Rachel Robertson. In episode two we are traveling back to 2019 when a group of us visited Bahman Abbasi at his bustling lab in Bend, Oregon.  

ROBERTSON (interview audio): OK. Just say where we are, what we are looking at. 
ABBASI: We are now in the Water and Energy Technologies Laboratory, which is my lab. And it’s about a 1200 square foot lab and it is set up to accommodate a number of experiments, new creative ideas, and all the students, and a post doc, and the advisor. 

ROBERTSON: One thing that hadn’t occurred to me until I saw his lab, is that because Bahman was new to Oregon State there was a lot of work he needed to do before he could even start the research.  

[MUSIC: “The Wildcardz,” by Blue Ocean, licensed through]

ABBASI: Building a multimillion-dollar lab from an empty space on a remote location, satellite campus, it's been hard work. It's been really difficult work. We had to schedule a long-term plan about exactly what we wanted to do and in what timeframe in order to succeed in this. Doing this very much feels like you're standing at the base of a mountain and looking at a peak. If you try to skip a step, you will never make it there. And if you don't plan it, if you don't go methodically around it, the odds of success dramatically diminish.  

ROBERTSON: You have to have a mountain metaphor if you live in Bend, right? Keep that metaphor in your mind because it will come back later. But for now, just know that Bahman is an avid mountain hiker. Key to this adventure of setting up the lab was postdoc Shawn Zhang.  

[MUSIC: “The Ripples,” by Tarmuz Dekel, licensed through]

ZHANG: I'm pretty sure my postdoc experience in the past year is way different than most of my colleagues in different universities. So, for sure, I never got a chance to build up a lab from empty space and I don't believe many postdocs have such experience either.  

ROBERTSON: Among the challenges they faced at the beginning were getting internet, power, water, and compressed air into the lab--all essential for their work. But they were also mindful of making it a comfortable space.  

ABBASI: So, it’s not somewhere you have to go, it’s somewhere you want to go and do your job. We actually accounted for the lighting. Where we are standing, where the students are, is where the direct sunlight is. It’s where they can see outside. I thought this would make a very pleasing environment. And critically, to leave some square footage for new creative ideas. 

ROBERTSON: Are you starting to get the picture? It’s an open space, larger than my first house, there is a cluster of student desks in one area, experiment stations in another, and a large conference table and white boards for collaborative work. All overseen by Bahman’s desk at the entrance. But this is just the space. The heart of the lab is the people. 

ABBASI: Recruiting the students, recruiting the staff is by far the most important and interesting thing to do. And something that I spend a lot of time thinking about and doing is how do we identify the best undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs and how do we entice and motivate them to come and help change the world here at OSU. I look for people who want to learn, who want to be here, and who look at this project and see the potential it has to help and save many lives all over the globe. I always tell everyone that I don't recruit talent. I recruit character.

[MUSIC: “Hope and Heisenberg,” by SPEARFISHER, licensed through]

VOICE MONTAGE: So, my name is Mohammed Elhashimi. I’m Sandy Denis. My name is Shawn Zhang. Morgan Messer. Yeah, so my name is Jessa Sequeira. I’m Hannah O’Hern. My name is Elnaz Nikooei. So, I’m Rachel Richards. I’m Tyler Hudson. I’m Deepak Sharma. 

ROBERTSON: Those are some of the many individuals who have contributed to this work, and who I’ve interviewed over the years. Bahman cast a wide net to find the best students from all over the world. Here’s Mohammad Elhashimi to explain why he wanted to work on this project. 

ELHASHIMI: So, what gets me up every day in the morning to work on this project is it has the huge scientific impact. Also, it has a huge humanitarian side. We want to save a huge amount of energy that is wasted on a daily basis on water desalination technologies, we want to reduce the price of water, and most importantly we want to provide the clean water for those people who go through daily struggles to provide clean water for their families. I’ve been working on voluntary works in many parts, in different parts in Africa. The smile that you see on their faces by the end of the day is worth it.  

ROBERTSON: Although Mohammed’s background was different from anyone else’s on the team, I heard that same sentiment expressed over and over. They were all motivated by the bigger goal of making a difference in the world.

[MUSIC: “Paticles,” by Nobou, licensed through]

ROBERTSON: The group also had a diverse set of skills which was necessary for the task at hand.   

ABBASI: We need heat exchanger experts. We need chemistry experts. We need additive manufacturing experts in order to build a single component. And no one person has all that knowledge in order to execute that. So, we need to bring all these people and they all need to act as one in order to carry out the effort.  

ROBERTSON: Even when you have the best equipment and an outstanding team, there is uncertainty in research. 

ABBASI: If things in research all go to expectations, it just means that we are not doing a good job. If you're not pushing the envelope, then the research is not really that interesting anyway. So, in a research project, it never does go to expectations and never should. I always tell my students that for every wire that you have for every joint and every connection and every flow meter and every sensor, you have a failure point. And if it doesn't fail today, it will fail tomorrow. And we have experienced a whole bunch of that along the way. But the good news is that I think we've overcome most of it.  

ROBERTSON: As we discussed in the first episode, Bahman’s idea was to invent a more energy-efficient twist on thermal desalination. The traditional, evaporative process requires powerful blowers and high-pressure pumps. Instead, his system humidifies and dehumidifies air so the salt can be extracted using less energy. The process requires atomizing and evaporating salty water.  

ABBASI: How to characterize that atomization, how to characterize that evaporation requires some fundamental understanding of the rate of evaporation of a droplet. Of how the pressure, the temperature, the velocity, the salinity, the droplet size, the orifice size, all come together to determine how quickly you can evaporate your droplets, so you leave behind the salt and, in effect, separate the salt from your fluids.  

ROBERTSON: Since this was a novel technique, there were many unknowns, so characterizing all the elements in the process was the aim of one of their early experiments that Mohammed demonstrated for me. 

ELHASHIMI: Yeah, fully open. 

ROBERTSON: So, just tell me what is happening as it’s happening. 

ELHASHIMI: OK. So, we have a compressed air line coming in, in this line. So, the air will enter this nozzle, right? Right now, we don’t have a water stream. So, the moment I open the water stream …

[noise of water line coming on].

When the compressed air line comes in contact with the water line inside of the nozzle, the compressed air line will break the surface tension of the water. So, we will have a small droplet spray at the outset, and that’s actually what we are looking for. That’s what we want.  

ROBERTSON: Bahman summarized this experiment in our interview.  

ABBASI: So, this benchtop experiment aims to inform us of how quickly, at what rate, we can evaporate those droplets in order to separate salts from the fluids. Knowing this will allow us to size the system and determine the operating conditions. What should our temperature be? What should our velocity be? What should our pressure be in order to achieve optimized evaporation rate? 

ROBERTSON: A critical component of the entire system is the thermal compressor that can run on low-grade energy, such as solar power, and produce high-pressure air to vaporize the saltwater. So, Bahman put a priority on making sure that would work. 

[MUSIC: “Theatre of Delays,” by Distant Worlds, licensed through]

ABBASI:  If we couldn't figure that out, if we couldn't solve that problem, the whole project could crumble. So, even though contractually it was not obligated until year one, we decided to carry that effort out as quickly as we could, just in case we were not successful, we would have a lot of time to find alternative routes around it or find solutions.  

ROBERTSON: The thermal compressor worked so well that Bahman realized the technology could be used for other applications. The team also applied for a patent, and in the meantime, Bahman spun the thermal compressor into another independent project. Let’s not get distracted though, we can talk about that another time. Beyond the advances in technology, Bahman points out that there is another goal of the research.  

ABBASI: The second goal that we have is to provide the best education possible for the students and postdocs at all levels. A lot of that education happens in the classroom, but a large part of that education happens in the lab when you face a real-world problem and you try to solve that problem.  

[MUSIC: “Hope and Heisenberg,” by SPEARFISHER, licensed through]

ROBERTON: That was the case for Jessa Sequeira, who was one of the 19 undergraduates who contributed to the research. 

SEQUEIRA: It allows me to tie in a lot of the stuff I’m learning in my classes, which is really helpful. That was the biggest struggle for me with engineering classes. Like, I didn’t understand how they could be applicable beyond basic labs or the generic problems that they give you in class. I really love the hands-on stuff, like preparing the test systems or making adjustments to the atomization systems.  

ROBERTSON: A little side note about Jessa is that she started out studying chemical engineering on the Corvallis campus where she also did research. But then her involvement in a student club pulled her in a different direction. 

SEQUEIRA: Once I traveled to Nicaragua with Engineers Without Borders and was working in a community, I realized that I really wanted to work with natural resources. And eventually work with communities in third-world countries and get their living standards up to what everyone else’s is at in the world.  

ROBERTSON: Jessa switched to OSU-Cascades when she discovered they have an energy systems engineering major, which aligned better with her life goals. In a future episode, I’ll give you an update on where Jessa is now, years later, but first, let’s return to the past. 

[MUSIC: “Glass,” by Claudio Laucci, licensed through]

ABBASI: Next month, November of 2019, we have what's called a phase review meeting where I will go to Washington DC before the entire agency that has funded us to explain what we have done, and then they will decide upon continuation of this project. We are very confident that we have met all of our goals. Next year for me, is to oversee and advise the team as we build the components and make sure that each component will meet its own performance metrics. Once that is done, we'll bring all the components together into a system, we will integrate them, put the control system on it, to make sure that the system will perform as planned and expected. 

ROBERTSON: As you may have figured out, since we have more episodes of this season, the review meeting went well and the team moved onto the next phase of research. But look out, here comes 2020. Will the pandemic hold back progress? Recorded from my back porch, Bahman fills us in on the desalination research, and a new twist on the technology. 

[MUSIC: “Shtriker Big Band,” by Chunky Monkey, licensed through]

This episode was produced by me, Rachel Robertson, but I had tons of help along the way. Jens Odegaard and Johanna Carson went with me to Bend for this recording. Steve Frandzel, Chris Palmer, and Owen Perry gave me awesome feedback, as always. And Cooper Mitchell helped with polishing the audio. If you want to see what Water and Energy Systems lab looks like, you can check out our bonus content at

ABBASI: And as the advisor, my only focus is how to become the best water researcher in the world. 

EVERYONE: [laughs] 

ABBASI: Don't include that. 

ROBERTSON: Oh, come on now! 

ODEGAARD: I just want to save the world and be the best. 

ABBASI: Very modest. 

ROBERTSON:  Oh, that was awesome.

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