An infrastructure and economic undertaking of enormous proportions along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border that could include natural gas and renewables projects is being advanced by a national collaborative of engineers from some of the nation's leading universities and research centers.

Outlined with an estimated $1.1 billion hypothetical start-up budget, the concept of an economic free trade zone would accelerate energy conversion and business development with costs paid by energy and tax revenues. Backers envision "the biggest industrial park" in the world, along with an equally large energy and water producing component to spur the industrial growth.

"We see this corridor creating an economic corridor that will create a boost to both nations," said consortium leader Luciano Castillo, a professor at Purdue University. "Most importantly, we see the concept as a means of creating more fresh water for the U.S. Southwest, which badly lacks adequate water supplies. And we bring in Mexico as part of the team where everyone benefits."

Castillo sees the infrastructure project, involving solar, wind and natural gas installations, along with desalination, agriculture and education projects, as an opportunity to have Mexico invest in, and reap the benefits from what ultimately would be massive public works developments.

Underlying this expansive endeavor would be a still-to-be-formed network of universities in about a dozen states, as well as Puerto Rico and Mexico.

The collaborative's white paper includes a border map with 19 locations for one or more of the energy-water-agriculture-educational installations, stretching from California to Texas.

The concept, which has been presented to some members of Congress and staff, was laid out in a February article in Scientific American by Mark Fischetti, who said the "bold plan" could create "economic opportunity rather than antagonism" along the southern border.

First articulated three years ago, the concept is still waiting for an opportunity to be presented to federal agencies. The Future Energy, Water, Industry and Education Park, aka FEWIEP, proposal aims to produce a "secure and permanent"  border solution.

A spot check by NGI of several Washington, DC-based industry associations, government agencies and individual companies turned up no real awareness of the concept, except at the Department of Energy.

Nevertheless, the consortium of 29 academic engineering professors and researchers foresees an international project that would provide a "secure, large-scale economic development zone at strategic locations along the vast expanse of mostly dry, arid lands."

A 2012 study cited by the engineers identified the U.S.-Mexico border as "one of the best sites in the world for energy production, including its proximity to natural gas, solar and wind resources."

In addition, Castillo and his colleagues contend that border energy infrastructure can be "an integral part" of border security installations. Border security technology, which is advancing, can also help protect the energy installations, they said.