INSIGHT: As water becomes scarce desalination attracts more attention

24 December 2012 13:43  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Desalination plant in DubaiLONDON (ICIS)--It is not so much that the world is short of potable water, it is the fact shortages are expected in areas of rapid population growth.

Supplies in the developed world are under pressure with 60% of medium to large European cities consuming groundwater at a rate faster than it can be replenished. In some rapidly developing regions the water supply situation is becoming critical.

Currently the 7bn people on Earth are “appropriating” 54% of all accessible fresh water, according to the United Nations. Withdrawal is expected to rise by 50% in developing countries by 2025 and by 18% in developed countries.

Generally, agriculture and industry take most water with municipal use sometimes restricted so that food production might be preserved

“By 2025, 1,800m people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions,” the UN says.

So providing more water by desalination becomes vitally important, particularly as energy prices change and osmosis and other desalination technologies are optimised.

Some exotic new desalination processes are attracting attention alongside more traditional desalination techniques like ‘multiple effect distillation (MED), ‘multistage flash’ (MSF) and ‘sea water reverse osmosis’ (SWRO), says consultants Chem Systems.

The new processes are designed to reduce capital and operating costs and include electrodialysis and solvent-based desalination (or ‘forward osmosis’).

“Municipalities and industrial customers alike now must often weigh the costs and benefits of desalination for obtaining water from non-ideal sources, such as seawater or saline aquifers,” Chem Systems says.

It is proposing a new study looking at the latest desalination technologies and their relative performance.

The increased interest in desalination has been driven by changed industrial as well as expanded municipal demand. New refinery and petrochemical facilities in some locations need water to be transported to the site having been constructed closer to energy rather than water resources.

And in parts of the world where refining and chemicals growth has been strong, such as the Middle East, future water supply to industry has become a critical issue – and one with some unusual consequences.

The demand for more clean water has put stress on other natural resources in the Middle East.

“The most worrying problem of all,” Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA), general secretary, Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun, said ahead of the association’s recent meeting in Dubai, “is also the most ironic: a region with an estimated 1,496.2 trillion cubic feet (42.3 trillion m3) of natural gas... appears to be running out of it.

“More and more industries besides petrochemicals are now competing for natural gas. The Gulf’s rapidly growing population is also placing ever-increasing demands on gas for electricity generation and water desalination.”

So cheaper, less energy dependent, desalination is a worthwhile goal.

Chem Systems says that it will review each desalination technology and its licensors, and assess the technical maturity of emerging options.

“The availability of useable water is becoming a major issue in the siting of construction of new industrial and power facilities, while upstream oil and gas operations often require vast quantities of water in relatively water-poor fixed locations,” Chem Systems says. “In addition, the rights of various parties to use water are often governed by a complex regulatory framework, and must be balanced between major uses in chemicals, power, manufacturing mining, municipalities and agriculture.”

The study will look at various cost scenarios for technologies based in three water-poor areas: the US Gulf Coast, the Middle East Gulf and northwest China.

“While our proposed report will include a significant section on technical descriptions of existing processes and a brief survey of patent literature, we do not intend to restate what can be found in textbooks,” Chem Systems spokesman, Joshua Velson, told ICIS.

“We believe that new designs (both in established technologies and newer ones) and changing market conditions in various regions have challenged conventionally held notions of the relative competitiveness of established desalination processes in various regions,” he adds. The study will focus on process economics and look closely at the range of new technologies that are being developed now and could compete with current options.

“We propose to work with the technology developers to analyse the commercial maturity, strengths, and weaknesses of many of these emerging technologies, and to model the economics of the most promising innovative processes.”

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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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