Potable Water from Sea and Wind

Western Australia's Water Corporation is on track to produce drinking water form a 45GL/a desalination plant located in Kwinana, 25km south of Perth. The plant is being built by proAlliance - a 50/50 joint venture between West Australian construction company Multiplex and French water treatment company Degremont. Degremont will operate the 140,000m3/d plant for 25 years under a public-private partnership with the West Australian government-owned Water Corporation. The construction cost is $387 million.

To reduce the environmental impact of the project electricity for the desalination plant will be produced from a wind farm located 30km east of Cervantes in WA's midwest. The 80MW wind farm has been engineered by the Queensland government-owned power generation company Stanwell Corporation and WA private company Griffin Energy. The wind farm will be operated by the WA government-owned power utility Western Power.

When complete Perth's desalination plant will ease pressure on WA's Integrated Water Supply Scheme. 45GL represents the single biggest water source feeding into the IWSS. To maintain water supplies for Perth's growing population the Water Corporation is pursuing a strategy of "security through diversity" and so is progressing engineering on a further desalination plant as well as developing the underground Yarragadee Aquifer to the south of Perth.

The Corporation has had to accelerate installation of water desalination due to reduced rainfall in Perth's catchment areas.

The technology to be used for the desalination plant is reverse osmosis. Osmosis is a natural phenomenon that occurs when water diffuses through a semipermeable membrane to equalise the concentration of salt in a solution. The transfer of water is from the dilute to the concentrated solution. By applying energy in the form of water pressure water can be made to move in reverse from a concentrate solution to dilute solution - hence the term reverse osmosis.

A semipermeable membrane acts like a molecular sieve allowing water particles to pass through while stopping dissolved salts, viruses and bacteria. To reduce the area required to house the membrane, the membrane is wound onto a spiral. Water is pumped under pressure down the spiral and migrates to the centre.
In recent years improvements in membrane manufacture and energy recovery devices have reduced the capital and operating costs. The Perth plant will produce drinking water at less than $0.95/kl at the fence. Electrical power consumption is expected to be less than 4.5Wh/kl.

An important part of reducing power consumption is the energy recovery system which uses a ceramic pressure recovery device. A device called the Pressure Exchanger (PX), a trademark of US firm Energy Recovery, uses a cylindrical rotor with longitudinal ducts parallel to its rotational axis. The rotor spins inside the sleeve between two end covers with port openings for both streams. Pressure energy is transferred directly from the high-pressure concentrate/reject stream to the low-pressure feed/seawater stream. A liquid piston moves back and forth inside each duct creating a barrier that inhibits mixing between the streams. The low-pressure side of the rotor fills with seawater while the high-pressure side discharges seawater. This rotational action is similar to that of an old-fashioned machine gun firing high-pressure bullets that is refilled with new seawater cartridges while spinning around a central axis.

When complete the plant will employ 16 people and provide valuable technical expertise in operating a large-scale reverse osmosis plant. A comprehensive environmental monitoring program is an operating license condition to ensure that the marine environment, near the seawater inlet and brine outlet, will not be harmed.

Seven Seas Water received a production Pressure Exchanger for evaluation in conjunction with the ADA workshop held in St. Croix, USVI in October of 1998.

A paper dealing with the performance of the device was delivered by Mr. Leif J. Hauge, President of Energy Recovery Inc. at the workshop. Tours were conducted at the test facility where the Pressure Exchanger was in operation.


It was decide, in discussions with Mr. Hauge, to deviate from the standard system design and determine if the Pressure Exchanger could be used to increase the capacity of an existing plant by utilizing the available waste energy. The pressure boost pump would also be eliminated to further simplify installation and evaluation. The Exchanger would act as a stand-alone pump using only waste energy to operate a separate bank of membranes. The Exchanger would be supplied with a separate source of filtered seawater.


The first impression of the Pressure Exchanger is the compact size and the simplicity of external design. The simplest way of mounting the system was to fabricate a mounting system that would allow a horizontal, wall mount of the device. This was completed and piping fabricated to meet installation requirements. Instrumentation was added to allow evaluation of the performance.


The pre-existing membrane system was being operated at 940 PSI with a feed flow of 39 GPM. Recovery rate was at 39%. Pre-treated seawater feed pressure was 25-32 PSI depending upon state of filters.

Without displaying the math, we had available 23.8 gallons per minute at 930 PSI (10 PSI differential) to operate a bank of three, eight-inch membranes, a very marginal feed supply. Also the Exchanger was designed for an optimum flow rate of 40 GPM. Since the Pressure Exchanger is primarily centrifugal in design, it was expected that some portion of the feed water pressure would translate to the discharge of the pump.

In starting the system, it took the Pressure Exchanger several minutes to ‘wind up’ as it does any turbine device. Within 15 minutes, the entire system had stabilized. Because the Exchanger had taken place of our concentrate control valve (and was oversized for the application) the feed pressure to the primary bank of membranes was only 855 PSI. Using the installed valve on the Exchanger we only increased the back-pressure to allow the primary bank to operate at 940 feed inlet.

The secondary set of membranes, powered only by the Exchanger, was then adjusted by slowing closing the concentrate control valve.

David Laker, also with Seven Seas Water, and well-known as a pioneering reverse osmosis engineer with over 30 years of experience in the field, described the results as being as close as he had ever seen to "a perpetual motion machine."

Within the limitations of the instrumentation we were now making 8,900 gallons per day of "free" water. The secondary set of membranes was operating at a calculated 23 GPM at 935-940 PSI and producing 6.2 GPM at 400 TDS. It was later determined that cross leakage within the Exchanger was less than 2% and the actual overall efficiency of the Exchanger was 96% allowing for feed water pressure.


After a short time running, it was noted that the seawater break tank was going down. The seawater feed pump was not large enough to continually feed the plant with the additional feed requirement.

A large pump was purchased and installed, but the feed flow did not increase sufficiently to allow the plant to run without interruption. It became clear that marine growth in the intake pipe was the root problem. The plant continued to operate in a "batch" mode for a short period of time. The plant was subjected to repeated starts and stops, without incident. All starts and stops were automatic and very smooth in nature.

Within a few days, the product water storage tank was at capacity and the plant shut down. Due to the difficulty and expense of installing in a new seawater intake system, it was concluded that long term testing of the Pressure Exchanger was not practical at this location.

During the week of running, the Exchanger membrane system produced 62,000 gallons of water. Overall recovery was 20%, including multiple shutdowns. The only kilowatts consumed were associated with the seawater feed pump and increased pumping requirement of the post-treatment of the permeate.


The testing carried out indicates that utilizing the Pressure Exchanger for plant expansion is not only feasible, but is extremely practical.

A 40,000 GPD plant without energy recovery would produce sufficient waste energy to allow easy expansion to 60,000 GPD using the Pressure Exchanger. If boosting the membrane feed pressure became a necessity, utilizing a small energy recovery turbine and the waste energy of the secondary membrane system is certainly possible, and should be explored. Seven Seas Water currently has such a system designed and installed, waiting for the client to order start-up.

This seems to be truly amazing device that allows several potential applications in our industry. We have no doubts of the viability of the Pressure Exchanger in the seawater reverse osmosis industry. We only have one question:

How fast can an eight-inch model of the Pressure Exchanger be available for use on very large-scale plants?

Continued from Desalination Part 3: Getting Better All the Time.........

A bigger problem may be the leftover brine, which typically contains twice as much salt as seawater and is discharged back into the ocean. So far little scientific information exists about its long-term effects. In the past, most big seawater-desalination plants were built in places that did not conduct adequate environmental assessments, says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a think-tank based in California that published a report on desalination in 2006. But as plants are built in areas with tighter environmental restrictions, more information is becoming available.

Some recent measurements from Perth are encouraging. Initially scientists from the Centre for Water Research feared that the brine discharge from the plant would increase the saltiness of the coastal environment. But a monitoring study found that salinity returns to normal levels within about 500 metres of the plants’ discharge units. “The brine discharge is a problem that can be overcome with good design,” says Dr Antenucci.

A separate problem may be that some metals or chemicals leach into the brine. Thermal-desalination plants are prone to corrosion, and may shed traces of heavy metals, such as copper, into the waste stream. Reverse-osmosis plants, for their part, use chemicals during the pre-treatment and cleaning of the membranes, some of which may end up in the brine. Modern plants, however, remove most of the chemicals from the water before it is discharged. And new approaches to pre-treatment may reduce or eliminate the need for some chemicals.

Based on the limited evidence available to date, it appears that desalination may actually be less environmentally harmful than some other water-supply options, such as diverting large amounts of fresh water from rivers, for example, which can lead to severe reductions in local fish populations. But uncertainties over the environmental impacts of desalination make it hard to draw definite conclusions, the National Research Council concluded. Its report suggested that further research on the environmental impacts of desalination, and how to mitigate them, should be a high priority.

The reverse-osmosis process is increasingly being used not just for desalination, but to recycle wastewater, too. In Orange County, California, reclaimed water is being used to replenish groundwater, and in Singapore, it is pumped into local reservoirs, which are used as a source for drinking water. In both cases, the treated water is also available for tasting at local water-recycling facilities. This “toilet-to-tap” approach may leave some people feeling queasy, but wastewater is a valuable resource, says Sabine Lattemann, a researcher at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who studies the environmental impacts of desalination. “Energy demand is lower compared to desalination,” she explains, “and you can produce high-quality drinking water.”

As water becomes more scarce, people will want to find several ways to secure their supplies. Many parts of the world also have enormous scope to use water more efficiently, argues Dr Gleick—and that would be cheaper than desalination. But sometimes, making desalination part of the approach to water management may be the only way to ensure a steady supply of drinking water.

In drought-ridden Western Australia, which ordered conservation years ago, the Water Corporation has adopted what it calls “security through diversity”, otherwise known in the industry as the “portfolio” approach. At the moment, Perth’s residents receive about 17% of their drinking water from seawater desalination. Desalination makes sense as one of several water sources along with conservation, agrees Dr Antenucci. But, he adds, “to say it is the silver bullet is wrong.”

Continued from Desalination Part 2: No Salt, Please..........

In the late 1970s John Cadotte of America’s Midwest Research Institute and the FilmTec Corporation created a much-improved membrane by using a special cross-linking reaction between two chemicals atop a porous backing material. His composite membrane consisted of a very thin layer of polyamide, to perform the separation, and a sturdy support beneath it. Thanks to the membrane’s improved water flux, and its ability to tolerate pH and temperature variations, it went on to dominate the industry. At around the same time, the first reverse-osmosis plants for seawater began to appear. These early plants needed a lot of energy. The first big municipal seawater plant, which began operating in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1980, required more than 8 kilowatt hours (kWh) to produce one cubic metre of drinking water.
The energy consumption of such plants has since fallen dramatically, thanks in large part to energy-recovery devices. High-pressure pumps force seawater against a membrane, which is typically arranged in a spiral inside a tube, to increase the surface area exposed to the incoming water and optimise the flux through the membrane. About half of the water emerges as freshwater on the other side. The remaining liquid, which contains the leftover salts, shoots out of the system at high pressure. If that high-pressure waste stream is run through a turbine or rotor, energy can be recovered and used to pressurise the incoming seawater.

The energy-recovery devices in the 1980s were only about 75% efficient, but newer ones can recover about 96% of the energy from the waste stream. As a result, the energy use for reverse-osmosis seawater desalination has fallen. The Perth plant, which uses technology from Energy Recovery, a firm based in California, consumes only 3.7kWh to produce one cubic metre of drinking water, according to Gary Crisp, who helped to oversee the plant’s design for the Water Corporation, a local utility. Thermal plants suck up nearly as much electricity, but also need large amounts of steam. “A thermal plant only is practical if you can build it in such a way that it can take advantage of very low-cost or waste heat,” says Tom Pankratz, a water consultant based in Texas, who is also a board member of the International Desalination Association.

Economies of scale, better membranes and improved energy-recovery have helped to bring down the cost of reverse-osmosis seawater-desalination. Although the cost of desalination plants and their water depends on where they are, as well as the local costs of capital and operations, prices decreased from roughly $1.50 a cubic metre in the early 1990s to around 50 cents in 2003, says Mr Pankratz. As a result, reverse osmosis is preferred for most modern seawater-desalination (though rising energy and commodity prices mean the cost per cubic metre has now risen to around 75 cents). Experts reckon that further gains in energy efficiency, and hence cost reductions, will be increasingly difficult, however. According to a recent report on desalination from America’s National Research Council, energy use is unlikely to be reduced by much more than 15% below today’s levels—though that would still be worthwhile, it concludes.

Sometimes, using desalination within water management may be the only way to ensure supply.

To achieve these reductions, researchers want to find better membranes that allow water to pass through more easily and are less likely to get clogged up. Eric Hoek and his colleagues from UCLA, for example, have developed a membrane embedded with tiny particles containing narrow flow channels, producing a significant increase in water flux. The membrane’s smooth surface is also expected to make it harder for bacteria to latch onto. Depending on a plant’s design, the new membranes could reduce total energy consumption by as much as 20%, reckons Dr Hoek. The technology is being commercialised by NanoH2O, a company on UCLA’s campus.

Meanwhile, the possibility of making membranes out of carbon nanotubes, which consist of sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into tubes, has also garnered attention. A study published in the journal Science in 2006 demonstrated unexpectedly high water-flow rates. But insiders think it will be a decade before the idea is ready for commercialisation.

As desalination becomes more widespread, its environmental impacts, including the design of intake and discharge structures, are coming under increased scrutiny. Some of the damage can be mitigated fairly easily. Reducing the intake velocity enables most fish species and other mobile marine life to swim away from the intake system, though small animals, such as plankton or fish larvae, may still get caught in the intake screens or sucked into the plant.

Continued from Desalination Part 1: Tapping the Ocean

This reduced the energy consumption of sugar refining by up to 80%, says James Birkett of West Neck Strategies, a desalination consultancy based in Nobleboro, Maine. But it took about 50 years for the idea to make its way from one industry to another. Only in the late 19th century did multi-effect evaporators for desalination begin to appear on steamships and in arid countries such as Yemen and Sudan.

A few multi-effect distillation plants were built in the first half of the 20th century, but a flaw in the system hampered its widespread adoption. Mineral deposits tended to build up on heat-exchange surfaces, and this inhibited the transfer of energy. In the 1950s a new type of thermal-desalination process, called multi-stage flash, reduced this problem. In this, seawater is heated under high pressure and then passed through a series of chambers, each at a lower pressure than the one before, causing some of the water to evaporate or “flash” at each step. Concentrated seawater is left at the bottom of the chambers, and freshwater vapour condenses above. Because evaporation does not happen on the heat-exchange surfaces, fewer minerals are deposited.

Countries in the Middle East with a lot of oil and a little water soon adopted multi-stage flash. Because it needs hot steam, many desalination facilities were put next to power stations, which generate excess heat. For a time, the cogeneration of electricity and water dominated the desalination industry.

Research into new ways to remove salt from water picked up in the 1950s. The American government set up the Office of Saline Water to support the search for desalination technology. And scientists at the University of Florida and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) began to investigate membranes that are permeable to water, but restrict the passage of dissolved salts.

Such membranes are common in nature. When there is a salty solution on one side of a semi-permeable membrane (such as a cell wall), and a less salty solution on the other, water diffuses through the membrane from the less concentrated side to the more concentrated side. This process, which tends to equalise the saltiness of the two solutions, is called osmosis. Researchers wondered whether osmosis could be reversed by applying pressure to the more concentrated solution, causing water molecules to diffuse through the membrane and leave behind even more highly concentrated brine.

Initial efforts showed only limited success, producing tiny amounts of fresh water. That changed in 1960, when Sidney Loeb and Srinivasa Sourirajan of UCLA hand-cast their own membranes from cellulose acetate, a polymer used in photographic film. Their new membranes boasted a dramatically improved flux (the rate at which water molecules diffuse through a membrane of a given size) leading, in 1965, to a small “reverse osmosis” plant for desalting brackish water in Coalinga, California.
The energy requirements for thermal desalination do not much depend on the saltiness of the source water, but the energy needed for reverse osmosis is directly related to the concentration of dissolved salts. The saltier the water, the higher the pressure it takes (and hence the more energy you need) to push water through a membrane in order to leave behind the salt. Seawater generally contains 33-37 grams of dissolved solids per litre. To turn it into drinking water, nearly 99% of these salts must be removed. Because brackish water contains less salt than seawater, it is less energy-intensive, and thus less expensive, to process. As a result, reverse osmosis first became established as a way to treat brackish water.

Another important distinction is that reverse osmosis, unlike thermal desalination, calls for extensive pre-treatment of the feed water. Reverse-osmosis plants use filters and chemicals to remove particles that could clog up the membranes, and the membranes must also be washed periodically to reduce scaling and fouling.

THERE are vast amounts of water on earth. Unfortunately, over 97% of it is too salty for human consumption and only a fraction of the remainder is easily accessible in rivers, lakes or groundwater. Climate change, droughts, growing population and increasing industrial demand are straining the available supplies of fresh water. More than 1 billion people live in areas where water is scarce, according to the United Nations, and that number could increase to 1.8 billion by 2025.

One time-tested but expensive way to produce drinking water is desalination: removing dissolved salts from sea and brackish water. Its appeal is obvious. The world’s oceans, in particular, present a virtually limitless and drought-proof supply of water. “If we could ever competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water,” observed President John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago, “that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.”

According to the latest figures from the International Desalination Association, there are now 13,080 desalination plants in operation around the world. Together they have the capacity to produce up to 55.6m cubic metres of drinkable water a day—a mere 0.5% of global water use. About half of the capacity is in the Middle East. Because desalination requires large amounts of energy and can cost several times as much as treating river or groundwater, its use in the past was largely confined to wealthy oil-rich nations, where energy is cheap and water is scarce.

But now things are changing. As more parts of the world face prolonged droughts or water shortages, desalination is on the rise. In California alone some 20 seawater-desalination plants have been proposed, including a $300m facility near San Diego. Several Australian cities are planning or constructing huge desalination plants, with the biggest, near Melbourne, expected to cost about $2.9 billion. Even London is building one. According to projections from Global Water Intelligence, a market-research firm, worldwide desalination capacity will nearly double between now and 2015.

Not everyone is happy about this. Some environmental groups are concerned about the energy the plants will use, and the greenhouse gases they will spew out. A large desalination plant can suck up enough electricity in one year to power more than 30,000 homes.

The good news is that advances in technology and manufacturing have reduced the cost and energy requirements of desalination. And many new plants are being held to strict environmental standards. One recently built plant in Perth, Australia, runs on renewable energy from a nearby wind farm. In addition, its modern seawater-intake and waste-discharge systems minimise the impact on local marine life. Jason Antenucci, deputy director of the Centre for Water Research at the University of Western Australia in Perth, says the facility has “set a benchmark for other plants in Australia.”

References to removing salt from seawater can be found in stories and legends dating back to ancient times. But the first concerted efforts to produce drinking water from seawater were not until the 16th century, when European explorers on long sea voyages began installing simple desalting equipment on their ships for emergency use. These devices tended to be crude and inefficient, and boiled seawater above a stove or furnace.

An important advance in desalination came from the sugar industry. To produce crystalline sugar, large amounts of fuel were needed to heat the sugar sap and evaporate the water it contained. Around 1850 an American engineer named Norbert Rillieux won several patents for a way to refine sugar more efficiently. His idea became what is known today as multiple-effect distillation, and consists of a cascading system of chambers, each at a lower pressure than the one before. This means the water boils at a lower temperature in each successive chamber. Heat from water vapour in the first chamber can thus be recycled to evaporate water in the next chamber, and so on.