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Investment in advanced water technologies is set for comeback in 2013

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Innovation leaders are confident that Middle Eastern investment in advanced water technologies is coming back in 2013.
Innovation leaders are confident that Middle Eastern investment in advanced water technologies is coming back in 2013.

Innovation leaders are confident that Middle Eastern investment in advanced water technologies is coming back in 2013. For the last couple of years, international economic uncertainty has lent an air of conservatism to business environments, and the Middle East has been no different.

Construction and the sudden cancellation or shelving of the panoply of projects earmarked from 2009 onwards was the most immediate and obvious manifestation of this. Desalination, however, has one advantage over other schemes. The fundamental requirement of clean water can be possibly postponed but not cancelled permanently.

‘The present economic situation has affected all the industries and the water industry – desalination – was no exception,’ said Dr Corrado Sommariva, president of the International Desalination Association.

‘While for many industries, the consequences were more dramatic, for the desalination and water industry, the impact was much milder. Meeting water needs is too important to any stakeholder. Hence, projects were delayed and resized, but those projects that were essential to the region have been definitely planned and implemented.

‘The financial situation has also offered, in many cases, the opportunity to address new challenges of energy efficiency and cost review. It has offered the possibility of investing more rationally in more cost effective initiatives and commence, at the same time, a program of retiring old and relatively inefficient assets.

There is also the precedent set by the region in the field of desalination technology and implementation. ‘The Middle East has been the origin of the desalination process and in all respects it is still the region where the greatest interest towards desalination remains, added Dr Sommariva.

‘The Middle East has been historically linked to thermal technologies and has been always generally conservative towards the introduction of new desalination technologies; to some extent this approach is comprehensible for a region where there is no buffer water storage and therefore any failure in the desalination process would immediately result in a shortfall in supply.”

Nowadays, however, seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) has been gradually introduced also in the Middle East along with new contracting mechanisms such as Design Build and Operate where an equitable share of the risks is taken by each party.

There are of course a number of principle projects underway in the region that demonstrate innovation in the field of desalination. On October 8, Watersolutions AG, a Swiss-based firm focused on developing clean-water technology in an ecological and economically sustainable way, announced the Watersolutions Low-Thermal Distillation (LTD) system.

The Watersolutions LTD system condenses water at low temperature and pressure, using waste heat (50-110° C) from thermal processes including renewable energy sources such as solar energy or geothermal energy.

The system requires significant amounts of low grade waste heat (6 - 30 MW), which can be derived from any source including thermal power plants, district cooling systems, general industry, mining and waste incineration.

“The starting principle is to make the whole process as simple as possible,” says Espen Mansfeldt, CEO of Watersolutions. “Other systems have extensive tube bundles. We don’t have any of that as the process takes place on the water itself. Therefore the system is much less prone to scaling and clogging.

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“LTD represents an exciting advancement in thermal desalination technology. The Watersolutions LTD system is simple to install, robust and highly efficient with low running and maintenance costs.

We believe it has potential to provide the world’s ever growing population with really clean water in a very cost-effective, energy efficient and environmentally friendly way,” adds Mansfeldt.

Developed over seven to eight yearts, with Swiss Universities, a pilot plant in El Gouna, Egypt, with a design capacity of 500 cubic meters per day (m3/d), has proven the principle, with very pure water being produced reliably and efficiently.

Not only that, according to Mansfedlt, it has enabled Watersolutions to ‘improve efficiency, stimulate all conditions to gauge robustness and flexibility.’

While investment costs (CAPEX) associated with LTD are very competitive, the major savings are in operating costs (OPEX) excluding depreciation, which are projected at only 1/3 -1/2 of existing processes.

Unlike conventional desalination technologies, where the main cost is related to energy usage, the LTD process uses free, low grade waste heat that cannot be used otherwise. The electricity requirement for LTD is very low.

For example, the Watersolutions LTD system with one cascade can produce pure water at less than 1.0 kilowatt hour per cubic meter (kWh/m3). In contrast, SWRO typically uses 3.5 – 4.5 kWh/m3 of water production.

Another benefit is the high conversion ratio of LTD, with only 1.5 m3 of seawater needed to produce 1.0 m3 of clean water (< 10 ppm of dissolved solids).

Also included in OPEX are the maintenance and replacement costs of parts such as membranes, which become worn over time. With LTD, which has no membranes and no interior pipe bundles, the requirement for maintenance is very low.

“Our LTD system can deal with a wide range of salinity, whereas many desalination plants are designed to treat a specific type of feedwater. The LTD process can even produce clean water from produced water that is highly saline and contaminated with oil. It can also accommodate variations in the plant load, running efficiently from 10 – 110% of plant design capacity.

The process is self-adjusting, and the amount of water produced is proportional to the amount of waste heat provided,” says Mark Lehmann, Watersolutions’ Chief Technology Officer.

But is thermal desalination the only technology available to the region? According to Dr Nidal Hilal, water and environment engineering professor at Masdar Institute the direction the region is dominated by thermal desalination, but that isn’t to say other technologies aren’t being employed.

“Thermal desalination is the main desalination industry in the GCC countries. It is well-trusted technology for many countries in the GCC as they have gained operational experience in this field. The main disadvantage is that it is energy intensive and takes much higher energy per cubic meter compared to other new desalination technologies such as reverse osmosis,” he says.

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‘Cutting edge technologies in desalination are membrane related technologies such as RO with new and high performance membranes and hollow fiber membranes,’ added Dr Hilal.

One of the latest developments in membrane technology can be seen in Forward Osmosis technology, which is currently under trial in small plants. This new technology can be seen in Oman, where Modern Water, a provider of water technologies for freshwater production has completed the installation and commissioning of a 200m3/day forward osmosis desalination plant at Al-Najdah in the Al-Wusta region of Oman.

It was awarded the contracted, worth US$650,000 (250,000 OR)to build and operate the world’s first osmosis desalination plant in June 2011 by Oman’s Public Authority for Electricity and Water (PAEW).

The plant — which supplies the local community with clean drinking water — started producing product water at full capacity in June. During August, testing was carried out and water quality reportedly exceeded contractual standards.

It isn’t just utilizing technologies at the sharp end today, according to Dr Ilham Kadri, general manager, Dow Advanced Materials, Middle East & Africa. It is how to ensure what is constructed is sustainable for tomorrow’s population.

‘The plants we commission and build today have to be built with technology that can handle the sustainability requirements that will be in effect 30 or 40 years down the road. Our industry should look at the best-in-class technology in terms of energy efficiency and sustainability because their lifetime will be anywhere from 25 to 40 years.

When many of the region’s plants were built 30 or 40 years ago, thermal technology was the best available technology at the time. Today, that best-in-class technology is Spiral Wound Reverse Osmosis (SWRO).

Additionally, relying on the more energy-intensive thermal technology translates into lost profits by wasting oil resources, and those profits could be spent in various other ways by regional governments. We are also promoting a combined UF and RO desalination solution that offers pretreatment for RO, thereby extending the life service of RO assets.’

Dow Water & Process Solutions technology has been incorporated in a number of projects across the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Shoaiba Barge Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) plant is one of Saudi Arabia’s largest Reverse Osmosis (RO) seawater desalination plants.

It is also the world’s largest floating desalination plant and one of Jeddah’s major emergency sources of water. The barge helped meet water needs during Hajj and Ramadan. It uses Dow’s interlocking endcap technology (iLEC) in both passes, offering improved process safety and long term reliability. Currently, the barge is in Shuqaiq in the southern region of Asir to assist with water needs during the tourist season.

In the UAE, at Layyah and Khor Fakkan utilize SWRO technology, each with a capacity of 27,000 m3/day.

Yet what is the benefit of such technologies, if no one is willing to invest? As previously mentioned, the business environment has lacked the confidence necessary to push ahead with pioneering technologies.

Mansfeldt claims to be pushing hard in the region for any new projects. Charles Desportes, head of thermal desalination unit at Aquatech, which operates desalination projects in Jeddah and Rabigh said following a couple of years of a total halt on projects, only now is there a sense of movement.

‘While all the mega projects have stopped, the $1-2 bn schemes, which Aquatech cannot get involved with - there are limits to what we risk – they are reactivating projects and we are fairly optimistic things will happen in the next year or two. Every project coming out we are bidding on,’ Desportes said.

It is clear that going forward, the Middle East and North Africa face severe challenges to obtain clean water and meeting the region’s water needs is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue for local governments. Reverse osmosis membrane efficiency should improve and offers one of the brightest options for the future. As energy costs for reverse osmosis decreases, people will move more towards the technology.

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