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03 Jun 2014

New Desalination Technologies Spur Growth in Recyling Water

Desalination has long been associated with one process — turning seawater into drinking water. But a host of new technologies are being developed that not only are improving traditional desalination but opening up new frontiers in reusing everything from agricultural water to industrial effluent.
By cheryl katz

A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed.

“Look at the color of this intake,” he says, pointing to a tube feeding brown fluid into a device the size of a home furnace. There, through a process called forward osmosis, a novel solution the company developed pulls water molecules across a membrane, leaving salt and impurities behind.
Trevi Systems holding tank
Cheryl Katz
At Trevi Systems' desalination plant in Tiburon, CA, fouled water is converted to drinking water using forward osmosis.
When low temperature heat is applied, the bioengineered solution separates out like oil, allowing clean water to be siphoned off.

This method uses less than a quarter of the electricity needed for standard desalination, making it easier for the technology to run on renewable power, said Webley. His company, Trevi Systems, recently won an international low-energy desalination competition and is building a pilot solar plant to desalinate seawater in the United Arab Emirates.

With world water demands rising and extreme droughts like the one now gripping California expected to grow more frequent and widespread as the climate warms, drawing fresh water from oceans and other salty sources will be increasingly important.

“Eventually, we’ll have to develop new sources of water,” said David Sedlak, a University of California-Berkeley professor of civil and
Desalination, wastewater recycling, and capturing rainwater are three pillars of future water systems.
environmental engineering and author of Water 4.0: The Past, Present and Future of the World's Most Vital Resource. Desalination, along with wastewater recycling and capturing and storing rainwater, will be “three main pillars,” he said, to replace “water supplies that are going to become less reliable and less available in the future.”

However, desalination is expensive, energy-intensive, and can damage marine ecosystems. Moreover, while seawater accounts for 60 percent of desalinated water today, Sedlak and others say it’s much more practical and sustainable to desalinate less-salty brackish water and use the technology to recycle wastewater. So companies around the world are working on new technologies that cut desalination costs, reduce environmental impacts, and broaden its applications.

In addition to removing salt from seawater, technologies like Trevi’s also can economically cleanse brackish groundwater, industrial effluent, and other forms of liquid waste. That includes desalinating sewer water to recharge groundwater aquifers, which it will soon begin doing for a large urban water district in Southern California.

“That’s what’s particularly interesting to us — we can run on really, really dirty water,” Webley said. “Where you really should start with this whole thing is, let’s squeeze everything we can out of re-use and then start talking about other options.”

More than 17,000 desalination plants are now operating in 150 countries worldwide, a capacity that could nearly double by 2020, according to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2014. Desalination produces 21 billion gallons of water a day, according to the International Desalination Association, providing a crucial water source in arid places such as the Middle East and Australia. Major new desalination facilities are in the works in China, Chile, and elsewhere.

However, the current standard technology, reverse osmosis — in which high-pressure pumps force water through semi-permeable membranes to exclude salt and impurities — uses large amounts of energy and has an outsized impact on the environment. These effects include damage to aquatic ecosystems, such as sucking in fish eggs with its intake water; using harsh chemicals to clean membranes; and releasing large volumes of highly salty liquid brine back into the water. Costs vary, but the lowest price for desalinated seawater from a reverse osmosis plant is around $750 an acre-
In the U.S., water-strapped California leads in both water innovations and needs.
foot (325, 851 gallons) — more than double the average cost of groundwater.

Engineers and entrepreneurs across the globe are now trying to devise greener desalination. Some are inventing new alternatives to traditional reverse osmosis. Among them: Israel, whose own dependence on desalinated water has made it a world leader in the process, has come out with several state-of-the-art technologies, including a novel “semi-batch” reverse osmosis process developed by Desalitech that shrinks energy and brine, and a chemical-free “plant in a box,” produced by IDE Technologies; and Memsys, of Singapore and Germany, is working on hybrid-thermal membrane technology that is energy-efficient enough to run on solar power.

In the U.S., water-strapped California, leads in both innovations and needs. The largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, a $1 billion state-of-the-art reverse osmosis facility being built near San Diego, is set to begin producing 54 million gallons a day — supplying water to 300,000 residents — in early 2016. At least 15 other desalination plants on the West Coast are currently in some stage of planning, and some small ones are already operating.

But residents’ concerns about the expense and environmental impacts like chemical use and brine disposal problems have slowed down and even halted some recent projects.

“Desalination is a really a hot button issue in California — a lot of people oppose it,” said Aaron Mandell, co-founder and chairman of Water FX.

Mandell hopes to quell those concerns with his company’s new process utilizing large parabolic mirrors to collect and concentrate the sun’s energy. Inside this solar still, pure water evaporates, while solids remain
`We are tackling both sides of the water problem — disposal and reuse,’ says one entrepreneur.
behind. The system is currently being tested by a water district in California’s agricultural Central Valley, cleaning irrigation runoff tainted with salts leached from the soil. The demonstration is now producing about 14,000 gallons of fresh water a day — a welcome boon to local farmers who received no water from federal allotments this year. The company plans to expand and boost production to 2 million gallons a day early next year.

Mandell points out that his salt byproduct is dry and can be mined for useful chemicals, rather than winding up with hazardous brine that’s costly to discard. What’s more, water districts and farms otherwise have to fallow land and lose income to dispose of the brackish effluent now being recycled into new water for crops.

“We saw the opportunity to take something that was costing quite a lot of money as a waste product and turn it into something of value,” he said. “In essence, we are tackling both sides of the water problem ... disposal and re-use.

“One of our biggest challenges,” Mandell said, “is that we are dealing with a lot of agricultural businesses that still sort of pray for rain. A lot of farmers do really rely on these seasonal water cycles. So getting people to think differently about climate change rather than just seasonal drought is definitely a challenge.”

Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Stanford University are working on a new desalinating method using porous carbon aerogel electrodes. The system, which they call flow-through electrode capacitive desalination, or FTE-CD, removes salt electrically. Although still in the early stages, its developers say the technique requires little equipment or energy, and the system could be scaled to fit any need: from portable personal devices to city water treatment.

“In places like California, where there is brackish groundwater in large volumes, FTE-CD can provide potable water at a potentially much lower cost than sea water desalination could achieve,” said co-developer Michael Stadermann, a physical chemist at Lawrence Livermore. “For desalinating brackish water, we predict that this method could be up to five times more energy efficient than reverse osmosis.”

One of the hottest new technologies on the bench in laboratories in the U.K., Saudi Arabia, and South Korea and elsewhere is one-atom thick, perforated graphene membranes that can cut reverse osmosis desalination
For the foreseeable future, reverse osmosis will likely remain the top desalination choice.
to a fraction of its current cost. Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the membrane’s pores can be tuned to optimize permeability. The hang-up for now is how to mass-produce the material.

For urban water needs, even those working on alternative methods say reverse osmosis (RO) will likely remain the top choice for the foreseeable future.

“You can talk about some of the other technologies, and I work on some of them,” said Menachem Elimelech, professor of environmental and chemical engineering at Yale University and director of Yale’s Environmental Engineering Program, “but if you need to produce water for the drinking water supply, I still think RO is the gold standard.”

Reverse osmosis has become much more energy-efficient in recent years, and is now near its maximum, Elimelech said. Still, he and others are trying to make further gains by improving membranes. One of the biggest problems is fouling — biofilms that grow on membranes over time, making pumps work harder to force water through. Elimelech is working with nanotechnology to make bacteria-resistant membranes.

New methods for recycling energy also cut the electricity needed to pump water through membranes. Manufacturer Energy Recovery Inc. estimates

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that its piston-like pressure exchangers being installed in the new San Diego-area reverse osmosis plant will save 115 kilowatt hours of electricity annually — equivalent to keeping more than 45,000 tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air.

Even so, desalinated water produced by the new plant will cost the San Diego County water district around $2,000 an acre-foot — twice as much as it currently pays for freshwater shipped in from the Colorado River and San Joaquin River Delta. Those sources, however, are over-tapped and growing increasingly unreliable, leaving residents of a county with scarce water resources to feel they have few other options.

Much of the world may someday feel that same pinch, making drought-proof water supplies priceless in a parched future. But for now, many experts say, while emerging technology is making desalination ever more viable, the economic and environmental costs are still too high.

“There are technologies available to minimize and in some cases eliminate some of the environmental impacts,” said Heather Cooley, director of the water program at the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organization in Oakland, Calif. Burying water intakes, for instance, keeps marine life out, and diffusers can dilute brine to safer levels. As for “the other environmental impact: the energy use and the resulting greenhouse gas emission,” Cooley said, technological advances are lowering both, but the question remains, “Are there other alternatives available?”



ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Cheryl Katz is a science writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A former staff reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Miami Herald and the Orange County Register, she is now a freelancer specializing in stories about environmental issues and climate change. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, Environmental Health News, and The Daily Climate, among other publications. Previously for e360, Katz reported on Iceland's renewable energy prospects and the emerging field of energy-scavenging technology.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

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COMMENTS


If you look objectively at this horrific strain on clean fresh water for human needs to the point of figuring out how we can now suck up ocean water by desalinating it, the reality smacks you in the face.

If we don't DO something to stop the exponential growth of human population, concentrating on the water problem is like putting a band-aid on one section of an infectious wound spreading to other parts of the body.
Posted by M Leybra on 05 Jun 2014


Natural desalination uses ZERO energy to produce millions of acre-feet a year. Using only nature's power to desalinate using standard RO technology. Let me know if you want to know more about how natural desalination works.
Posted by Joseph Rizzi on 25 Jun 2014


Seawater is a large water resource that is not vulnerable to droughts. Desalination of seawater is necessary, and every project must be prominently scaled to meet proven water supply needs. Projects should be designed and sited, and the best technology available should be used for every small or big project.
Posted by Glenn Oliver on 01 Jul 2014


As the world struggles to find usable water for people and plants, sometimes we cannot be overly critical of the ways that usable water is produced. We need usable water to survive, and I am encouraged to discover how many technologies that are currently available to create more for future use.
Posted by CJM on 02 Oct 2014


In today's world there is a shortage in water supply.
Some areas have plenty of water and others have
little to none. With that being said I don't think we
should be picky about the way usable water is made
as long as there is enough for everyone to help us
survive.
Posted by JZ on 06 Oct 2014


Need is there, however, what is the long term affect on the marine ecosystems?
Posted by Jennifer D on 06 Oct 2014


How do you desalinate water?
Posted by Austin Edwards on 15 Oct 2014



 

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