Pilot UAE desalination plants months away from full operation

Four small-scale desalination plants, designed to test energy-efficient ways of producing potable water, are just months away from full operation at a site close to the Abu Dhabi/Dubai border, an official has said.

Gyeongbuk, SOUTH KOREA // Four small-scale desalination plants, designed to test energy-efficient ways of producing drinking water, are months away from full operation near the Abu Dhabi border with Dubai.

The pilot plants are under construction in Ghantoot, 90 kilometres north-west of Abu Dhabi city, in a project by Masdar.

The renewable energy company aims to find ways of reducing high volumes of energy used in desalination, and its impact on the environment.

As announced by The National last year, the plants are being built by four water technology companies – Spain's Abengoa and Degremont, France's Veolia, and Trevi Systems of the US.

“For the moment, all the four partners have already completed the assembly process. Around 35 per cent of equipment has already arrived on site. It is being assembled as we speak, in the designated locations,” said Mohammed El Ramahi, associate director, asset management, engineering and operations at Masdar Clean Energy.

“The trial operations are commencing as we speak. We expect all four plants, four pilots, to be operational before the end of June this year.”

Mr El Ramahi spoke at the World Water Forum, a five-day conference and exhibition in Daegu and Gyeongbuk, South Korea, where Masdar presented its project to an audience of water experts and decision-makers.

“Desalination has always been perceived as expensive, harmful, not environmentally-friendly,” said Mr El Ramahi. The project aimed to “revolutionise the industry as we know it today”.

Veolia is relying on traditional reverse osmosis technology, which pumps water under pressure through a series of membranes. But in its plant with a capacity of 300 cubic metres per day, the company will look to integrate within one piece of equipment, two separate stages of the pre-treatment process, which serves to purify sea water before it is pumped through the reverse osmosis membranes.

California-based Trevi Systems will build a facility with a capacity of 50 cubic metres per day using forward osmosis, a process in which chemicals are used to pull water through membranes. This eliminates the need to put the water under pressure when pumping it through the membranes, reducing energy use.

To qualify in the trial, the project had to show it can desalinate water at under 1 kilowatt hour per cubic metre. Currently, the energy footprint of desalination varies between 3.5 to 5 kWh per cubic metre.

“These technologies are still in the womb of research and development. They have not yet been commercialised,” said Mr El Ramahi. “What we aspire to achieve through this programme is to take these technologies from research and development into commercialisation.

“If you reduce the energy intensity, you will reduce the environmental footprint of desalination and of course, you will also have a commercial impact because we know that 50 to 70 per cent of the cost of desalination comes from energy,” he said.

Desalination technologies with a reduced energy demand are cheaper to couple with renewable energy, such as photovoltaic solar energy.

The pilot will run until the end of August 2016 when the performance of the four plants will be evaluated. Masdar will partner with those deemed successful to build large-scale desalination plants locally and globally.

“We have signed with our partners a long-term, strategic agreement that allows to co-invest together to co-develop these plants all around the world,” he said.

“We hope that with this approach, we will be able to commercialise these technologies and become a key player in the desalination industry as a total solution provider and developer.” In 2013, when the project was announced, Masdar aimed to have a large-scale, commercially-viable water desalination plant, powered by renewable energy, by 2020 in Abu Dhabi.

“What we perceived is, in Abu Dhabi there might be a potential of half-a-million cubic metres a day that could be allocated to this programme,” said Mr El Ramahi.

“But once again, there is no promise, there is no guarantee that this would be awarded to this programme or to the successful parties who deliver in terms of this demonstration phase.”