Revolutionizing The Water Desalination Industry?

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Group picture 1_solar desalination conf_May 2014

First of all, let me say that water desalination is not my expertise. But based on my limited knowledge of the industry and what I learned this week at Abu Dhabi Ascent, the news below is quite big.

As stated at the press conference announcing the four winning companies chosen to participate in Masdar’s “Renewable Energy Water Desalination Program,” the goal of the program is to “revolutionize” the water desalination industry, particularly by bringing water desalination efficiency up to another level. If successful, this will have great environmental as well economic benefits.

The four winning companies were awarded contracts from Masdar and their task is to develop “energy-efficient seawater desalination technologies efficient enough to be powered by renewable energy.” Pilot project sites from the companies are under construction and almost ready for launch.

A press release regarding the new program states: “Each company, selected for the project because of their leadership and innovation within the desalination sector, will build and operate its own test plant to develop and demonstrate desalination technologies over the course of 18 months. This timeframe will enable the companies to gauge which desalination technologies emerge as the most efficient and therefore have potential to be powered by renewable energy. All of the four test plants will demonstrate innovations in advanced membrane technologies, such as reverse osmosis and forward osmosis, which are more energy efficient processes than the thermal processes currently in use in most of the desalination plants throughout the UAE. As part of the pilot project, each of the four companies will collaborate with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology – a research-driven, graduate university in Abu Dhabi.”

Dr. Ahmad Belhoul, the CEO of Masdar, started out the press conference by focusing on the need to reduce the large environmental ramifications of water desalination. But he then noted complementary economic goals. “We also want to make the water desalination technology affordable,” he stated. Water desalination has been around for a long time, but one of the big weights holding it back from broad adoption is its high costs.

Aside from the obvious environmental and economic benefits of more efficient desalination, affordable water desalination will help to improve UAE national security and overall water security, and it could do the same for many other nations.

“Water security is one of the most pressing issues around the world,” noted Masdar Chairman Dr. Al Jaber, “but with the Gulf region’s climate we have limited natural options. Combining best-in-class desalination technologies with our abundant solar resources is a logical step toward securing our country’s water supplies.”

Also important to the “Renewable Energy Water Desalination Program” was examining the desalination–food nexus, Dr. Ahmad Belhoul noted.

Her Highness Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi, followed on with a discussion of the tremendous water scarcity challenges the UAE faces, but also how much other areas of the world are affected by this water crisis. 40% of global population is currently affected by water scarcity, she noted. “By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in absolute water scarcity. 2/3 of the global population will be facing some level of water scarcity.”

Al Mubarak noted that desalination will grow a great deal in order to help address this growing crisis. However, she noted the economic, energy, and tremendous environmental problems that come with current desalination technologies. Desalination accounts for 31% of the UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions, for example. Discharge of brine into the Arabian Gulf is also causing large ecosystem problems in that ecosystem.

Al Mubarak gave kudos to the pilot program noted above, as it aims to transition the UAE (and broader world) to a decoupling of water desalination and fossil fuel use.

Following Al Mubarak’s great commentary, CEO of Masdar Dr. Ahmad Belhoul added: “Today, the Gulf region accounts for over 50% of global water desalination.” He said that this program is not a token project but aims to create commercially viable water desalination technologies that utilize renewable energy. The four companies that were awarded the opportunity to participate in this pilot program will develop projects with the following capacities:

  • Abengoa 1080 m3/day
  • Degrémont (Suez) 100 m3/day
  • SIDEM (Veolia) 300 m3/day
  • Trevi Systems 50 m3/day

Representatives from each of the companies spoke at the press conference. I found the comments from Trevi Systems CEO John Webley particularly interesting. He noted that they were trying to create a very environmentally friendly system that was inspired by nature. “How does a fish drink water?” is the question the company asked, according to Webley. The goal is to mimic that process in the company’s technology. Webley also noted that Trevi Systems was the smallest company awarded a contract and seemed particularly grateful.

Commence of piloting officially started on Monday. The hope is that production will start in January 2015.

Here’s a bit more information about the pilot program from the press release noted above:

The entire pilot project test facility will be located in Ghantoot, 90 kilometers northwest of Abu Dhabi. Masdar selected Ghantoot because of its easy access to deep seawater and the availability of existing utility connections from a now-decommissioned desalination plant. During the course of the project, the test plants will also provide 1,500 cubic meters of potable water per day to Abu Dhabi’s water infrastructure, enough to meet the water requirements for around 500 homes.

Masdar’s awarding of these contracts to these companies was announced during the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a two-day, high-level meeting convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to encourage bold actions to address climate change. Hosting government, business and civil society leaders, the Abu Dhabi Ascent is designed to build momentum for the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in New York, which aims to catalyze transformative action and build political impetus in advance of the 2015 UNFCCC Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Top image courtesy Masdar. Other images by Zachary Shahan / CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

People in top image, left to right: John Webley, Chief Executive Officer of Trevi Systems; Faraj El-Awar – Program Manager at UN Habitat; Dr. Ahmad Belhoul, Chief Executive Officer of Masdar; H.E Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General, Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi; Xavier Joseph, CEO of Sidem/Veolia Gulf Countries; Pierre Pauliac, CEO Degrémont; and Carlos Cosin, Chief Executive Officer of Abengoa Water.

*My trip to the UAE for Abu Dhabi Ascent was covered by Masdar.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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