The Future of Desalination

Stephen DeAngelis

July 08, 2008

In a recent post, I discussed efforts to harness the power of the ocean’s waves to generate electricity [Harnessing the Power of Waves]. Scientists and engineers are also looking to the oceans for an even more important resource — potable water [“Tapping the oceans,” The Economist, 7 June 2008 print edition]. Many pundits have raised the possibility of future resource wars and high on most lists of resources over which nations could fight is water. The Economist puts it this way:

“There are vast amounts of water on earth. Unfortunately, over 97% of it is too salty for human consumption and only a fraction of the remainder is easily accessible in rivers, lakes or groundwater. Climate change, droughts, growing population and increasing industrial demand are straining the available supplies of fresh water. More than 1 billion people live in areas where water is scarce, according to the United Nations, and that number could increase to 1.8 billion by 2025.”

One cannot help but be reminded of Samuel Taylor Coleridges’ famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The Economist article asks the question, “As concern over water’s scarcity grows, can desalination offer a quick technological fix?” The challenge is not just technology (because it’s been around for awhile):

“References to removing salt from seawater can be found in stories and legends dating back to ancient times. But the first concerted efforts to produce drinking water from seawater were not until the 16th century, when European explorers on long sea voyages began installing simple desalting equipment on their ships for emergency use. These devices tended to be crude and inefficient, and boiled seawater above a stove or furnace. An important advance in desalination came from the sugar industry. To produce crystalline sugar, large amounts of fuel were needed to heat the sugar sap and evaporate the water it contained. Around 1850 an American engineer named Norbert Rillieux won several patents for a way to refine sugar more efficiently. His idea became what is known today as multiple-effect distillation, and consists of a cascading system of chambers, each at a lower pressure than the one before. This means the water boils at a lower temperature in each successive chamber. Heat from water vapour in the first chamber can thus be recycled to evaporate water in the next chamber, and so on. This reduced the energy consumption of sugar refining by up to 80%, says James Birkett of West Neck Strategies, a desalination consultancy based in Nobleboro, Maine. But it took about 50 years for the idea to make its way from one industry to another. Only in the late 19th century did multi-effect evaporators for desalination begin to appear on steamships and in arid countries such as Yemen and Sudan.”

Anyone familiar with sea-going vessels knows that they have been using evaporators to generate potable water for some time. In fact, the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln used its evaporators to desalinate water that was used to save survivors of the Indonesia tsunami in 2004. The challenge for desalination remains cost, especially with rising energy prices. As the article notes:

“One time-tested but expensive way to produce drinking water is desalination: removing dissolved salts from sea and brackish water. Its appeal is obvious. The world’s oceans, in particular, present a virtually limitless and drought-proof supply of water. ‘If we could ever competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water,’ observed President John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, ‘that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.’ According to the latest figures from the International Desalination Association, there are now 13,080 desalination plants in operation around the world. Together they have the capacity to produce up to 55.6m cubic metres of drinkable water a day—a mere 0.5% of global water use. About half of the capacity is in the Middle East. Because desalination requires large amounts of energy and can cost several times as much as treating river or groundwater, its use in the past was largely confined to wealthy oil-rich nations, where energy is cheap and water is scarce.”

As climate change spreads water shortages to areas unfamiliar with droughts, more and more people are thinking about desalination.

“In California alone some 20 seawater-desalination plants have been proposed, including a $300m facility near San Diego. Several Australian cities are planning or constructing huge desalination plants, with the biggest, near Melbourne, expected to cost about $2.9 billion. Even London is building one. According to projections from Global Water Intelligence, a market-research firm, worldwide desalination capacity will nearly double between now and 2015.”

Big projects, however, always raise big concerns—especially if they increase energy consumption. Desalinating seawater to make potable water is no exception.

“Some environmental groups are concerned about the energy the plants will use, and the greenhouse gases they will spew out. A large desalination plant can suck up enough electricity in one year to power more than 30,000 homes. The good news is that advances in technology and manufacturing have reduced the cost and energy requirements of desalination. And many new plants are being held to strict environmental standards. One recently built plant in Perth, Australia, runs on renewable energy from a nearby wind farm. In addition, its modern seawater-intake and waste-discharge systems minimise the impact on local marine life. Jason Antenucci, deputy director of the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the facility has ‘set a benchmark for other plants in Australia.'”

Although cost remains a daunting challenge for desalination plants, there are also some technical challenges.

“[In early systems,] mineral deposits tended to build up on heat-exchange surfaces, and this inhibited the transfer of energy. In the 1950s a new type of thermal-desalination process, called multi-stage flash, reduced this problem. In this, seawater is heated under high pressure and then passed through a series of chambers, each at a lower pressure than the one before, causing some of the water to evaporate or ‘flash’ at each step. Concentrated seawater is left at the bottom of the chambers, and freshwater vapour condenses above. Because evaporation does not happen on the heat-exchange surfaces, fewer minerals are deposited. Countries in the Middle East with a lot of oil and a little water soon adopted multi-stage flash. Because it needs hot steam, many desalination facilities were put next to power stations, which generate excess heat. For a time, the cogeneration of electricity and water dominated the desalination industry.”

Scientists are constantly looking for better ways to desalinate seawater and, like in many other areas of research, they have looked to nature to find breakthroughs.

“Research into new ways to remove salt from water picked up in the 1950s. The American government set up the Office of Saline Water to support the search for desalination technology. And scientists at the University of Florida and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) began to investigate membranes that are permeable to water, but restrict the passage of dissolved salts. Such membranes are common in nature. When there is a salty solution on one side of a semi-permeable membrane (such as a cell wall), and a less salty solution on the other, water diffuses through the membrane from the less concentrated side to the more concentrated side. This process, which tends to equalise the saltiness of the two solutions, is called osmosis. Researchers wondered whether osmosis could be reversed by applying pressure to the more concentrated solution, causing water molecules to diffuse through the membrane and leave behind even more highly concentrated brine. Initial efforts showed only limited success, producing tiny amounts of fresh water. That changed in 1960, when Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan of UCLA hand-cast their own membranes from cellulose acetate, a polymer used in photographic film. Their new membranes boasted a dramatically improved flux (the rate at which water molecules diffuse through a membrane of a given size) leading, in 1965, to a small ‘reverse osmosis’ plant for desalting brackish water in Coalinga, California.”

Although reverse osmosis solved some problems, it exacerbated the energy challenge.

“The energy requirements for thermal desalination do not much depend on the saltiness of the source water, but the energy needed for reverse osmosis is directly related to the concentration of dissolved salts. The saltier the water, the higher the pressure it takes (and hence the more energy you need) to push water through a membrane in order to leave behind the salt. Seawater generally contains 33-37 grams of dissolved solids per litre. To turn it into drinking water, nearly 99% of these salts must be removed. Because brackish water contains less salt than seawater, it is less energy-intensive, and thus less expensive, to process. As a result, reverse osmosis first became established as a way to treat brackish water. Another important distinction is that reverse osmosis, unlike thermal desalination, calls for extensive pre-treatment of the feed water. Reverse-osmosis plants use filters and chemicals to remove particles that could clog up the membranes, and the membranes must also be washed periodically to reduce scaling and fouling.”

All of that, of course, adds to the cost of desalinating water. Continued research has addressed some of these problems.

“In the late 1970s John Cadotte of America’s Midwest Research Institute and the FilmTec Corporation created a much-improved membrane by using a special cross-linking reaction between two chemicals atop a porous backing material. His composite membrane consisted of a very thin layer of polyamide, to perform the separation, and a sturdy support beneath it. Thanks to the membrane’s improved water flux, and its ability to tolerate pH and temperature variations, it went on to dominate the industry. At around the same time, the first reverse-osmosis plants for seawater began to appear. These early plants needed a lot of energy. The first big municipal seawater plant, which began operating in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1980, required more than 8 kilowatt hours (kWh) to produce one cubic metre of drinking water.”

When energy is cheap and environmental concerns have a lower priority than access to potable water, building and operating such plants made a certain amount of sense. As energy prices rose, however, so did research in how to bring down energy usage and generating costs.

“The energy consumption of such plants has since fallen dramatically, thanks in large part to energy-recovery devices. High-pressure pumps force seawater against a membrane, which is typically arranged in a spiral inside a tube, to increase the surface area exposed to the incoming water and optimise the flux through the membrane. About half of the water emerges as freshwater on the other side. The remaining liquid, which contains the leftover salts, shoots out of the system at high pressure. If that high-pressure waste stream is run through a turbine or rotor, energy can be recovered and used to pressurise the incoming seawater. The energy-recovery devices in the 1980s were only about 75% efficient, but newer ones can recover about 96% of the energy from the waste stream. As a result, the energy use for reverse-osmosis seawater desalination has fallen. The Perth plant, which uses technology from Energy Recovery, a firm based in California, consumes only 3.7kWh to produce one cubic metre of drinking water, according to Gary Crisp, who helped to oversee the plant’s design for the Water Corporation, a local utility.”

That is less than half of the energy required by early plants. That means you can desalinate 1000 litres of water for about the same amount it costs to run a central air conditioner for an hour in a typical U.S. home (about a dime). It also makes reverse osmosis plants a little more economical than thermal plants.

“Thermal plants suck up nearly as much electricity, but also need large amounts of steam. ‘A thermal plant only is practical if you can build it in such a way that it can take advantage of very low-cost or waste heat,’ says Tom Pankratz, a water consultant based in Texas, who is also a board member of the International Desalination Association. Economies of scale, better membranes and improved energy-recovery have helped to bring down the cost of reverse-osmosis seawater-desalination. Although the cost of desalination plants and their water depends on where they are, as well as the local costs of capital and operations, prices decreased from roughly $1.50 a cubic metre in the early 1990s to around 50 cents in 2003, says Mr Pankratz. As a result, reverse osmosis is preferred for most modern seawater-desalination (though rising energy and commodity prices mean the cost per cubic metre has now risen to around 75 cents). Experts reckon that further gains in energy efficiency, and hence cost reductions, will be increasingly difficult, however. According to a recent report on desalination from America’s National Research Council, energy use is unlikely to be reduced by much more than 15% below today’s levels—though that would still be worthwhile, it concludes.”

In addition to looking for further energy reductions (which could be a case of diminishing returns), scientists and engineers are looking at new materials (like making membranes out of nanotubes) to increase plant efficiency as well as tackling other challenges.

“As desalination becomes more widespread, its environmental impacts, including the design of intake and discharge structures, are coming under increased scrutiny. Some of the damage can be mitigated fairly easily. Reducing the intake velocity enables most fish species and other mobile marine life to swim away from the intake system, though small animals, such as plankton or fish larvae, may still get caught in the intake screens or sucked into the plant. A bigger problem may be the leftover brine, which typically contains twice as much salt as seawater and is discharged back into the ocean. So far little scientific information exists about its long-term effects. In the past, most big seawater-desalination plants were built in places that did not conduct adequate environmental assessments, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a think-tank based in California that published a report on desalination in 2006. But as plants are built in areas with tighter environmental restrictions, more information is becoming available. Some recent measurements from Perth are encouraging. Initially scientists from the Centre for Water Research feared that the brine discharge from the plant would increase the saltiness of the coastal environment. But a monitoring study found that salinity returns to normal levels within about 500 metres of the plants’ discharge units. … A separate problem may be that some metals or chemicals leach into the brine. Thermal-desalination plants are prone to corrosion, and may shed traces of heavy metals, such as copper, into the waste stream. Reverse-osmosis plants, for their part, use chemicals during the pre-treatment and cleaning of the membranes, some of which may end up in the brine. Modern plants, however, remove most of the chemicals from the water before it is discharged. And new approaches to pre-treatment may reduce or eliminate the need for some chemicals. Based on the limited evidence available to date, it appears that desalination may actually be less environmentally harmful than some other water-supply options, such as diverting large amounts of fresh water from rivers, for example, which can lead to severe reductions in local fish populations. But uncertainties over the environmental impacts of desalination make it hard to draw definite conclusions, the National Research Council concluded. Its report suggested that further research on the environmental impacts of desalination, and how to mitigate them, should be a high priority.”

The article concludes by noting that most countries are going to have to take a “portfolio” approach to secure ample water supplies. This means utilizing traditional water sources as well as new ones, including seawater and waste water. In the latter case, what people don’t know doesn’t hurt them. As I recall, President Richard Nixon, visited a water treatment facility and famously refused to take a sip of recovered waste water when it was offered to him. The fact is, however, that making waste water potable is more energy efficient and produces better quality water than treating seawater. Within a few years, we will see water shortages grab as many headlines as the current global food crisis. We don’t want to wait until there is a crisis to address seriously the water shortages that everyone knows is on the way.