An old cliche describes a global problem facing cities now and in the future: Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink. The modern crisis is that hundreds of millions of people are at urgent risk of losing access to the world’s most precious resource: clean water.
For decades, scientists hoped the answer to the problem could be found through desalination. Purifying ocean water until it was fit for for human consumption seemed to be a clever and important fix. Trouble is, this filtration technology has had a hard time living up to its promise. It consumes massive amounts of energy, meaning every gallon of water produced can be quite costly.
We’re talking about 10 times more expensive than traditional water distribution systems. That may not be a concern in wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, which have made heavy (and costly) investments in desalination. But it’s a tougher proposition in places like South Africa. A large new plant in 2011 in that country was mothballed soon after it went into operation. The operating costs were simply too high to justify.
Now, new, more technology advances are giving desalination a fresh look. Not only are desalination systems becoming more efficient, consuming less energy, but a large wave of clean energy installations can provide the power needed to keep these plants running at full throttle.
The key technology that will change everything: Off-grid zero-emission desalination now promises to become one of the fastest-growing smart cities technologies around, becoming a $35 billion industry by 2028, predicts IDTechEx.1
This new approach has already attracted the likes of IBM Corp., which is partnering with Saudi Arabia to tie together solar power and desalination.2 In Doha, the Monsson Group which hopes to build the world’s first fully automated and remotely controlled plant in the world. It will be powered by wind and solar and feature low operating costs and zero on-site personnel. This is just the first of many such plants that are expected to sprout up across Qatar.
These plants will use a metal organic framework, usually called MOF, which can efficiently capture salt and other ions in seawater. It doesn’t use the traditional membranes that consume so much energy at other desalination plants. MOF yields a 50% reduction in energy consumption. Perhaps it’s time to re-visit that mothballed South African plant, as well as the many other potential plants that were never given the green light because of high costs.
While the MOF technology is still being refined, two firms are poised to play a leading role. PSI Physical Sciences Inc. and MOF Technologies are both names to watch in this space.