Masdar Launches Solar Desalination Pilot Program

Last month in the United Arab Emirates, Veolia Water Technologies and three other companies that have built some of the most advanced desalination technology in the world began operating a cluster of experimental plants in a Masdar pilot facility, which, after successful testing, will be ultimately powered by solar energy.

At the opening ceremony, Masdar CEO Dr. Ahmad Belhoul explained the pilot's goal, saying,“Not only are we funding new technology but we are also testing it and deploying it.” He added, “By using solar power, we're cutting the carbon footprint to zero.” (Read the press release.)

Exploding growth

This project took on an urgency after 20 years of rapid development vaulted skyscrapers and gleaming towers up from the barren desert, causing demand for fresh water to explode. With little rain and even less groundwater, the Emirates now rely on desalinated seawater to supply 98 percent of their water.

Powered by natural gas, the technological miracle of modern desalination requires ten times more energy than normal water production and accounts for a third of the UAE’s greenhouse gas emissions. And demand is expected to grow by 30% over the next 15 years. The Emirates' rulers have known for a long time that this wasn't sustainable.

Finally in 2013, Masdar invited 180 companies in the water desalination industry to participate in the project. It chose four partners to build four plants — Abengoa (Spain), Suez Environment (France), Veolia (France) and Trevi Systems (US) — all of which offer technologies that had already moved from research to lab testing, then modeling, and prototyping, but had not been used on a utility scale.

Nonetheless, Masdar had already decided to build a commercial-scale, renewably-powered desalination plant in Abu Dhabi no later than 2020.

When the contracts were awarded in 2014, Masdar chairman Sultan Al Jaber explained how much the Emirates' future was riding on this bold experiment, saying, “Seawater desalination is an energy-intensive process that will become unsustainable over time. We must innovate to meet our long-term water needs.” (Read the press release.)

Different approaches

Each partner designed, engineered, and constructed a separate plant in Ghantoot, 90 kilometers northwest of Abu Dhabi, a site chosen for its easy access to deep seawater and existing utility connections from a decommissioned desalination plant.

Suez implemented its Dow Water and Process Solutions, along with its advanced and innovative ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis membrane technologies. 

Abengoa used its ultrafiltration pre-treatment phase, reverse osmosis and an innovative membrane distillation system.

The Veolia plant tackles harsh conditions, including salinity of up to 52g/l, temperature exceeding 42°C and harmful algal blooms.

Trevi's forward osmosis system was inspired by nature. “How does a fish drink water?” is the question the company asked. The goal is to mimic that process in the company’s technology.

Together the plants provide 1,500 cubic meters of water a day to Abu Dhabi, meeting the needs of over 500 homes.

Just a year after the contracts were inked, Ahmed Al Jaber offered visiting dignitaries glasses filled with freshly desalinated water, then he took a sip from his chilled glass and said, "It tastes just like Evian."

Pushing innovation

The project goes beyond traditional R&D and is considered research and development transformation (RDT). The four companies are collaborating with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a research-driven graduate university.

The R&D covers the evaluation, and mitigation of membrane scaling and fouling; optimized design of a full-scale, solar-energy-powered SWRO; capacitive de-ionization for treatment of permeates from the first pass RO; and development and testing of Trevi System's novel forward osmosis membranes and manufacturing techniques.

Trevi Systems CEO John Webley said, “Without the steadfast and financial support of Masdar, it would not have been possible for a small company such as Trevi to gain acceptance of our technology.”

Ramping to commercialization

During the first ‘reliability test' phase (about 9 months), the plants operate continuously in order to demonstrate high-efficiency and reliable performance. The second phase of the program, (about 6 months) has a more experimental character. The partners will adapt and improve their plants as they transition to solar power.

Aiming to use about a third less energy than standard plants, they have a target of using less than 3.6 kilowatt hours per cubic meter of water — the average non-renewable energy desalination plants run at about 5 kWh/m3.

If the projects can reduce the energy intensity by 40 percent, an estimated annual cost savings of $94 million is expected from 2020 onwards, if 15% of Abu Dhabi's newly built desalination uses the new technologies.

Despite the small scale of the test, Masdar will weigh the results after a year and a half and select technology to scale up.

A Worldwide footprint

"We've signed with our partners a long-term, strategic agreement that allows to co-invest together to co-develop these plants all around the world," Sultan Al Jaber said.

Outside of the UAE, the issues of global water scarcity, droughts, and water pollution have become acute risks in many regions of the world. The technologies developed through these projects have the potential to be scaled up and exported to address sustainable access to water around the world. 

Will this new technology arrive soon enough to head off disaster in the Gulf?