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Big change in the membrane

Desalination trends are all revolving around membrane technology

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Tawfiq Abu Soud, Drake & Scull IW&P.
Tawfiq Abu Soud, Drake & Scull IW&P.
Doug Eisberg of Energy Recovery.
Doug Eisberg of Energy Recovery.

Desalination trends are all revolving around membrane technology. Utilities Middle East finds out how this is affecting the sector.

Desalination is vital to the Middle East. This may be an obvious statement, but it doesn’t take away any of its importance. In this region water is scarce and with the population rising, it is fair to say that without desalination there would be a big water crisis.

The desalination sector is one with a heavy emphasis on the technology it uses. The better companies follow and keep up with these technological trends in a market which is still relatively young. One of the main trends currently being seen in this region and the world is the use of membranes rather than thermal techniques.

“What we see in the technology is there is a drive towards membrane desalination at the moment, essentially because of the lower costs associated with membrane technology,” Bassam Halabi, group business development director at Metito says.

Other firms involved in desalination agree that there is a move towards reverse osmosis and membrane technology. “We see reverse osmosis technology continue to gain on thermal desalination processes,” confirms Doug Eisberg, product director at Energy Recovery.

“Now there is the introduction of the 16inch membrane which can lower the cost of desalination further with improvements in the energy recovery systems. So these things are pushing the desalination industry towards membrane technology rather than thermal. I’m not biased towards membrane technology because Metito does that, but that is what I see in the market,” adds Halabi.

He goes on to say that there are not many plants currently being built which are using thermal technology, although there are some in the UAE and Saudi Arabia which were designed a long time ago and are on a larger scale than most desalination plants.

As a consequence of this trend, a growing number of companies have looked to capitalise on the popularity of membrane technology and reverse osmosis plants.

“This trend has resulted in strong growth for the sea water and brackish desalination industries,” explains Eisberg. “The market as a whole is going towards this membrane technology, they are not just being used in desalination but also in waste water recovery but membranes are emerging as a front runner in desalination,” adds Halabi.

Drake and Scull International, a new entry into the desalination market, sees a similar theme.  “The primary objective of the desalination market is to provide clean water when and where needed, and to the local standards required. The desalination industry was historically dominated by thermal technologies. However, reverse osmosis has more recently emerged as a more popular source for desalinating water, given its inherently lower cost of investment, lower running cost and lower space requirements,” says Tawfiq Abu Soud, executive director, Drake and Scull Water and Power.

“Research and development continues in parallel to innovative construction methods, and together will contribute to a growing sector that matches the trends and meets the demands of the desalination industry markets,” he adds.

The market has faced similar to challenges to that of any other. A poor economy has resulted in project delays and tougher conditions for financing.

“The current economic climate has affected most, if not all industry sectors, and water is no exception. It was inevitable that the demand for desalination plants specifically, and water and wastewater treatment plants generally would also fall,” comments Abu Soud.

“The current economic climate also means a fall in capital costs, and coupled with an independently ever-growing demand for clean water, it is an opportune moment to optimise and enhance selectivity of technologies and contractors assigned with ensuring that the current demand are always met,” he adds.

“As everyone knows, because of the global crisis our main challenge is financing. Projects are being a little bit delayed. We have hopes for movement and we know that the projects will be moving and some of them are about to move,” explains Halabi.

“Project financing remains a serious hurdle for the industry which can cause delays in products. This is turn means that water doesn’t reach those in need as soon as it should,” says Eisberg.

Other considerations that are affecting the industry include the environmental question of exactly how much the process of desalination is harming marine life.

“People have raised the issue of environmental worries but there are all sorts of studies that are being done now to see what exactly is the impact of for example discharging brine from desalination plants into the seas oceans and how that affects the marine environment,” says Halabi.

“Frankly the way we see this is that the chemicals used in desalination are FDA approved and they do not impact the environmental or marine life, perhaps the salinity might have a little bit of an effect but that is currently under study and the solution is always to have a better diffusion of the salts whenever they discharge into the sea.”

“Thermal plants have the disadvantage of higher temperatures and this may well have an effect on the environment,” Halabi concludes.

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