Desalination Part 1 of 4: Tapping the Ocean

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.