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The membrane advantage

by Adam Lane on Jul 9, 2012

Dr Nidal Hilal, Professor in Nano-Membranology and Water Technologies, Masdar Institute.
Dr Nidal Hilal, Professor in Nano-Membranology and Water Technologies, Masdar Institute.

Utilities Middle East speaks with Masdar Institute’s Dr Nidal Hilal, Professor in Nano-Membranology and Water Technologies, about how membrane research is changing the game in desalination

Speaking to Masdar Institute’s Professor Nidal Hilal, he makes it immediately clear that pressure on the water supply in the Middle East, and the world in general, is a grave and growing problem.

One in eight people around the world drinks water containing pollutants, bacteria and viruses, whilst elsewhere we are consuming too much water from limited resources. Abu Dhabi, for example, consumes 24 times more water than its natural recharge capacity. It is, as Dr Hilal says, an alarming situation.

“Basically we are taking too much water from water resources, and tapping into the sea is the only option available to address such water shortages. Desalination of sea water increasingly proves to be the most practical – and in many cases the only – solution for many countries across the globe, and particularly around the GCC and the Arab world,” he says.

Traditionally, the answer to desalination in this part of the world has been thermal desalination; a high-capital, high-energy solution that is only suitable where fuel is cheap. Whereas high energy costs in much of the world has long since turned attention away from thermal, here in the Middle East there has been far less of a need to seek alternatives.

Now though, with a far greater focus on energy efficient solutions, together with a growing distaste for burning domestic oil for water consumption, the usefulness of membrane technology in desalination has demanded far more attention.

“The importance of membrane technology in the desalination industry is the energy usage. For example, a thermal desalination plant in the region using a muti-stage flash unit is likely to use around 25kwh per cubic metre. This is compared with a unit using a reverse osmosis membrane (RO), which uses between 4 and 5kwh per cubic metre.

Of course energy remains the major cost in the operation of desalination facilities, and this is the attractiveness of RO membranes.”

With significant predicted increases in future energy costs, the need to find energy efficient, sustainable solutions to ensure a secure long-term water supply has grown. Dr Hilal’s research is focused on improving the efficiency of membranes further.

“The disadvantage of membranes is that they become blocked – or fouled – and this impedes the flow and efficiency. When a membrane is blocked, we need more energy to drive the water across the membrane. My research is focused on making new membranes, with different materials, which are called (bio) fouling resistant membranes.”

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