Industry Looks to Desalination, Emerging Water Treatment Technologies

Carlsbad desalination plant

by | Nov 16, 2015

Carlsbad desalination plantFour years into California’s historic drought, a $1 billion desalination plant is being built by Poseidon Water. The Carlsbad Desalination Project, 12 years in the making, will convert up to 56 million gallons of seawater daily into drinking water for San Diego County. It’s the state’s first major desalination plant and it could be an answer to the drought, which plagues much of the Western US.

California has more than a dozen small desalination plants in operation, the Sacramento Bee reports. When the Carlsbad plant comes online, it will produce about 25 times more potable water than all of California’s small plants combined.

Poseidon’s Carlsbad project is also a major test for the desalination industry in California and the US, which faces steep hurdles to overcome such as the high price of electricity and opposition from environmentalists over concerns that desalination seawater intake pipes and brine discharge harm marine life.

“In California, the Pacific Ocean provides a limitless resource of water that can be desalinated to help alleviate that state’s water crisis,” says Patricia A. Burke, secretary general of the International Desalination Association (IDA). “We are looking forward to the commissioning of the Carlsbad desalination plant to prove this potential.”

But, says Burke, desalination — particularly seawater desalination as opposed to brackish water — is not a quick fix. As the Carlsbard plant has shown, these facilities take time to be planned, permitted and built.

“Recent regulations in California will add significant costs to the construction of new seawater desalination plants — regulations that are, in our opinion, overly stringent given the rigorous environmental assessments that go into in plant siting and design and the advancements in desalination technology aimed specifically at safeguarding marine life and addressing environmental concerns,” Burke says. “As we’ve seen in many parts of the world, desalination has become mainstreamed, and it has proven to be vital to providing a reliable source of water to people and economies.”

Desalination Plants to Double by 2020

Increasing global water scarcity has opened up vast avenues for growth in the desalination market, according to a Frost & Sullivan report. Analysis of Global Desalination Market finds that the market earned revenues of $11.66 billion in 2015 and estimates this to reach $19.08 billion in 2019. More than 17,000 desalination plants are in operation in 150 countries worldwide, a capacity that is expected to double by 2020.

As drought situations intensify, desalination will evolve into a long-term solution rather than a temporary fix, the report says. Developing cost-effective and sustainable solutions will enable technology providers to capitalize on this immense potential.

“Due to the high cost of treatment, desalination is generally the last resort for producing and supplying water,” says Lux Research’s Abhirabh Basu, a research associate on the water team. “Treating surface water, reusing wastewater, and even desalinating brackish water are several fold cheaper and less energy intensive than seawater desalination. Once the current drought passes, California will be stuck buying expensive desalinated water when it could be using other sources.”

Instead of looking to desal, Basu says “water shortages can be tackled through a combination of tight water restrictions and investing in direct or indirect reuse projects, such as Texas’ toilet-to-tap project, which treat wastewater for potable and non-potable reuse.”

As the global market for desalination grows, water treatment and water technology firms are finding new opportunities to boost sales. The McIlvaine Company forecasts the market for desalination pumps, valves, filters and chemicals will top $5 billion this year. Companies that develop technology to bring down the cost of desalination, by making it less energy intensive, for example, can tap into this market.

Lowering the Cost of Desalination

Last week General Electric said researchers at GE’s Global Research Center in Upstate New York are working with the Department of Energy to test a desalination system that produces fresh water at low cost by essentially freezing seawater.

If successful, the water treatment technology could reduce the cost of desalination by 20 percent compared to more conventional thermal evaporation approaches, the researchers say.

“Freeze crystallization isn’t a new concept, but improving the system around the process would likely increase energy efficiency,” Basu says. “By designing a small turbine for the cooling process, it appears that GE is doing what it does best, that is, leverage its synergies and experience in the power space to its water business.”

Basu says startups in the space are also innovating in freeze desalination. While GE’s technology would need to reduce the seawater temperature to 0 degrees C, a BGH’s freeze crystallization system does not require lowering the temperature of water to 0 degrees C. “Rather than freezing salty water into ice, BGH adds an inducing agent, that induces the formation of a clathrate at temperatures of 5 degrees C to 10 degrees C and ambient pressure to separate out the salts.”

Pilot-scale testing shows energy consumption as low as 10 kWh/m3 — 50 percent to 70 percent lower than evaporative distillation. “The technology is applicable to the zero liquid discharge market, which is growing globally,” Basu says. “The applications include power generation, oil and gas water treatment, and chemical refinery water treatment, where enhanced reuse and recovery is becoming very important.”

One lesson to be learned from the drought, according to IDA, is that an integrated water management approach — conservation, desalination to provide a new source of freshwater, plus water recycling and reuse — is key. Water and power companies would be wise to take note. Burke says no single approach will solve the western US’ water crisis. But she adds: “IDA has always looked at desalination as a part of solving the world’s water scarcity problem.”

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