GE and Saudi Aramco aim to change the world

Cheap desal will have same impact as the potato, Saudi Aramco says.

Nabil Al-Khowaiter: If we can cut the cost of desalination, we can change history.
Nabil Al-Khowaiter: If we can cut the cost of desalination, we can change history.

Future advances in seawater desalination technology will radically change the course of human history, according to Saudi Aramco’s entrepreneurship projects director, Nabil Al-Khowaiter.

Al Khowaiter made the comments at the recent launch of Saudi Aramco and General Electric’s joint innovation initiative, which challenges entrants to find more energy efficient ways of desalinating sea water.

“We have to find a way to make the desalination of sea water practically free. If we can do that, we are going to change the course of human history. Just as the potato changed the course of European history when it arrived from South America,” he told

The cost of desalinating sea water is currently in the region of 50c - $1 per cubic metre. With up to 70% of that cost being accounted for by energy consumption used in the desalination process, there is enormous scope to reduce this cost, if more efficient methods of production can be found.

With four top prizes of $50,000, Aramco and GE hope that the competition will help to uncover the next generation of ideas that will eventually lead to new technologies being deployed here in the Middle East.

“Our goal is to find these new technologies wherever they are – Siberia, Mongolia, South America – somebody out there has some ideas that are going to be very interesting to us. Once we discover them, we are going to invest in these new technologies and bring them to Saudi Arabia and the GCC region. We want to find these technologies and utilise them to safeguard our future because we can’t just go on burning oil forever,” Al-Khowaiter said.

Aramco and GE have said that they will look to invest significantly in any projects which catch their eye. Al Khowaiter expects applicants will focus on a wide range of approaches to lowering the cost of desalination, but hinted that some European scientists may have already begun work on the subject.

“One aspect of this challenge is the idea of mineral extraction. There are some scientists in Germany and Italy who are claiming that they can extract so many valuable minerals from the water that eventually the water will be free anyway as it is produced as a bi-product of this mineral extraction.”

The competition was born out of close consultation with a number of the region’s top schools and universities.

“GE and Saudi Aramco consulted with a number of top universities in the country, including the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to see what their top priority was. All of them said the desalination of sea water,” Al-Khowaiter said.

GE and Saudi Aramco made their announcement during Wetex (Water, Energy, Technology, and Environment Exhibition), Dubai’s annual trade event for the utilities sector. The event took place April 14-16 at Dubai International Convention and Exhibition Centre.



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