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UAE's first eco-friendly desalination plant opens

Three of the plants use reverse osmosis technologies, and one (Trevi Systems), forward osmosis. With the reverse osmosis, seawater is pumped from the sea, while in forward osmosis it is sucked out.

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Dr Sultan Al Jaber and Suhail Al Mazroui, Minister of Energy, take a tour of the Masdar Renewable Energy Desalination Pilot Plant after its inauguration
Dr Sultan Al Jaber and Suhail Al Mazroui, Minister of Energy, take a tour of the Masdar Renewable Energy Desalination Pilot Plant after its inauguration

The country's first desalination plant that works on renewable energy has been inaugurated in Abu Dhabi. Though the plant can produce just a modest 1,500 cubic metres of water per day,enough to supply 500 homes - the possibilities are endless.

Dr Ahmad Belhoul, CEO of Abu Dhabi's renewable energy company Masdar, said the idea is not to add more desalinated water to the existing 916 million imperial gallons produced daily in Abu Dhabi. "The whole purpose of the plant is commercialisation, to prove (to) investors (that) renewable energy-powered desalination plants are bankable."

The project began in 2013, when Masdar invited 180 companies in the water desalination industry to participate in the pilot project. Based on their sustainable and energy-efficient technologies, Masdar chose four international partners to build four plants - Abengoa (Spain), Suez Environment (France), Veolia (France) and Trevi Systems (US).

The chosen site was a decommissioned desalination plant in the Ghantoot area, selected due to its accessibility to deep seawater and availability of electricity and natural gas.

Like with any desalination plant, the Ghantoot pilot plant starts by extracting seawater. This is pumped into a tank, where it is tested to verify the quality. It is then distributed to the four partners, each receiving a water flow varying from 10 cubic metres to over 100 cubic metres per hour, based on each partner's requirements, reported Khaleej Times.

Three of the plants use reverse osmosis technologies, and one (Trevi Systems), forward osmosis. With the reverse osmosis, seawater is pumped from the sea, while in forward osmosis it is sucked out. All four plants use various technologies to save as much energy as possible.

Energy consumption aside, one of the major environmental issues with desalination plants is the brine, the leftover salt from the extracted water, which is usually dumped back into the sea, thus increasing salinity and harming corals and marine life.

The four plants discharge a total of 3,951 cubic metres of brine back into the sea daily.

"We abide by the regulations of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. As per regulations, we are supposed to discharge the brine a few metres into the sea, but we go much further," pointed out Dr. Belhoul.

All desalinated water produced by the four plants is collected in another tank and checked daily by Masdar to ensure it is up to quality standards.

Global water consumption doubles every 20 years - more than twice the rate of population growth. This is one of the world's most pressing issues, both economically and socially, and is especially critical in arid regions.

The water demand in the UAE is expected to grow by 30 per cent by 2030 and most of it comes from desalination plants. "The UAE has the highest rate of water consumption in the world and 80 per cent of it comes from desalination plants. Yet, it is 10 times more expensive to produce water from desalination than from ground surface - so desalination is not sustainable," said Dr Belhoul.

If the renewable energy desalination pilot plant in Ghantoot, which works mostly on solar power, proves to be commercially successful, it may be the answer to water scarcity not only in Abu Dhabi, but also the region and beyond.

Masdar has given itself one year to demonstrate that this is a good investment.

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