While California is in the grip of drought after one of the driest years on record, reigniting an interest in desalination to augment supplies, in other regions of the world, such as parts of the Middle East, it's never expected that rainfall in any given year will be sufficient to meet demand. In the United Arab Emirates, desalination is already a major source of water for the country, representing 30 percent of its water supply and constituting the primary source of potable water.
But the UAE -- with a rapidly growing population, 90 percent of whom are foreigners working in the country -- still draws 65 percent of its water from ground supplies, which officials realize is not a sustainable resource. Consequently, desalination is increasingly important to address the nation's long-term water security; the Gulf region as a whole, already accounts for about 50 percent of the world's desalination capacity.
However, present technology is highly energy intensive, and UAE based Masdar announced yesterday at the high-level United Nations "Abu Dhabi Ascent" climate meeting, that it has awarded contracts to four companies to demonstrate next-generation seawater desalination technologies which will be substantially more energy efficient.
The pilot program stems from a call to action by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE, His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan, while today Masdar Chairman Dr. Ahmed Al Jaber said: "Seawater desalination is an energy intensive process that if left unchecked will become unsustainable over time. We must innovate and discover commercially viable solutions to meet our long-terms water needs."
Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency, pointed out that 40 percent of the global population is affected by water scarcity and no continent is immune. In the UAE, 31 percent of the country's emissions are a consequence of desalination; so the project pursues the need to decouple the water supply from fossil-fuel energy use, while at the same time providing a commercial opportunity on a global basis.
Although the pilot project will use existing energy sources in the country -- of which renewables are already part of the current mix -- the effort is to focus on improving the efficiencies of the desalination process itself. However, the new technologies piloted are expected to allow the implementation of cost-competitive, large-scale seawater desalination plants powered by renewable energy in the UAE and abroad in the future. The methods will focus on advanced innovations in membrane technologies, such as reverse and forward osmosis.
The project will be located at the site of a decommissioned desalination plant in Ghantoot, 90 kilometers from Abu Dhabi, where there is access to deep seawater. Since this is a test program, the production from the pilot will produce only about 1,500 cubic meters of water a day, enough potable water for around 500 homes, while the output will immediately be fed into the national water system. The project will run over the course of 18 months, and will be evaluated based on the resulting reduction in energy intensity achieved (kWh/cubic meter), with a desired goal to reach 60 percent of current desalination costs -- important parameters in order to be able to commercialize the technology.
The four companies chosen are Abengoa (Spain), Degremont (France), Sidem/Veolia (France) and Petaluma, Calif.-based Trevi Systems. All companies will collaborate with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology -- a research driven, graduate university in Abu Dhabi.
Photo courtesy of Masdar
Travel expenses for the Author and TriplePundit to attend Abu Dhabi Ascent were provided by Masdar.
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Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.