How Sunshine Is Making Water Drinkable In The Desert
November 01, 2015
Solar desalination is a method of removing minerals and salt from saline water using sunlight to make it potable. Taking this science from the chemistry lab to factories, the UAE is putting its secret weapon to use: solar energy. Will this new approach successfully replace traditional ones?
While there might be several articles cropping up about it, solar desalination is anything but a new concept. This technique can be found etched in the journals of ancient Greek mariners and Persian alchemists. For centuries, the sun has been used to do everything from tell time to beautify beach bodies. So it’s hardly surprising that mankind has found yet another way to harness the sun’s throbbing potential.
Corrado Sommariva, President of the International Desalination Association comments, “While the initial focus, particularly in the Middle East, was to provide a reliable source of fresh water to ensure the beginning and blossoming of the region’s economy, the emphasis now includes making desalination a sustainable and environmentally responsible industrial solution not only for the desalination industry, but also for the continued development and success of the region’s community at large”.
Setting up shop
Turning adversity into innovation, Dubai has introduced the “M Station” in Jebel Ali. The building was launched in 2013, and uses the biggest desalination units in the world. It is credited with being the country’s largest power and desalination plant, boasting an impressive generation capacity of 2,060 megawatts and having the potential to produce 140 million imperial gallons of desalinated water per day.
The UAE’s public reputation seems to comprise of “tallest this” and “biggest that”. Continuing that tradition, the country is bracing itself to establish the world’s largest solar powered desalination plant. Where did the need for such a mammoth project arise? It’s no surprise that the UAE is located in the desert, and derives its water from finite underground supplies and the ocean. But unlike other regions, the Middle East has to filter its tap water while surviving on an abundant supply of bottled water. Time Magazine recently announced that water scarcity is a growing issue as we advance into this decade.
The reason more countries aren’t solving their water scarcity problems with solar desalination is because it consumes a massive amount of energy. The UAE has a fortuitous location on the equator, thus placing it directly under the sun’s gaze.
Richard Menezes, Executive Vice Chairman of Utico Middle East, intends to use the region’s wealth of sunshine and translate it into solar energy to power a collection of solar desalination plants. While the foundation of this project costs billions of dollars, the utilization of solar energy and channeling it to the UAE’s residents provides Utico with a minimal cost. When weighed against each other, solar desalination proves to have more perks than drawbacks. With the decreasing price of solar panels, accessing solar energy and using it as a regular alternative is becoming more practical. In addition to this, they are also low maintenance and project no energy costs due to the involvement of solar energy. One of the few disadvantages of solar desalination plants would be their size.
Solar energy vs. fossil fuels
Fossil fuel energy consumption in the UAE was last measured at 100.97 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank. Graphs indicate that consumption of this energy has significantly skyrocketed since early 2008. While the Gulf country has thrived despite adverse conditions, fossil fuels cannot be relied on without a deadline in mind. This pressing issue has been addressed at multiple environmental exhibitions and conferences, and a gradual shift to more sustainable energy resources is in motion.
Wal Van Lierop, CEO of Vancouver- based Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital comments, “Using oil and gas for desalination is a common practice, but can present some major drawbacks. Using solar energy to desalinate water will allow the UAE to focus on exporting oil internationally. This switch will minimize internal consumption of oil and gas. Solar desalination doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse gases problem like traditional energy sources do. The cost of using solar energy has also been significantly reduced, over the years, which makes it a cheaper option in comparison to alternative approaches. We’re also just at the beginning of solar technology.
“But with the way things are going and the region’s natural penchant for abundant sunlight, the future of the country’s solar energy industry is very bright. Pun intended, of course”.
Since the UAE’s population is rapidly growing, His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has highlighted the urgent requirement for water security to meet the country’s long-term demands. Masdar has jumped to action and launched a pilot project revolving around energy- efficient seawater desalination technologies. In addition to using sunlight as a renewable energy, the UAE is making attempts to diversify its mix of energy resources and Maersk, a global conglomerate dealing in energy, claims that nuclear energy will on the agenda by 2017.
Surviving and thriving
Water is integral for basic human survival. For instance, this vital resource is playing a crucial role in maintaining the temperatures in towers, preventing its residents from suffering a severe case of hyperthermia. Almost a quarter of a million gallons of water is pumped through the Burj Khalifa’s HVAC system alone, maintaining pleasant temperatures and keeping the skyscraper livable.
The UAE has made a commendable journey from the barren desert it once was. A research project by Quooker has revealed that the country’s tap water is officially safe for consumption. The quality of desalinated domestic tap water has been debated upon and scrutinized for decades.
Quooker, the pioneering company behind boiling water taps, confirms that while the tap water is perfectly healthy, hygienic tanks need to be invested in and regularly maintained. Jakob Johannsen, Managing Director of Quooker UAE comments, “Desalinated water is entirely safe and suitable for drinking when it leaves the processing plant, so there is value for local authorities in doing more to ensure the cleanliness of residential water tanks and consumption of the high quality water their facilities are producing. We were encouraged to find that 80 percent of consumers would drink water from a filtered boiling water tap, so there is clearly scope for reduced dependence on bottled water”.
With 2020 around the corner, the UAE has a bunch of promising projects in store. This includes Masdar’s pilot project, that aspires to not only help this country challenge the desert stereotype but also makes the rest of the GCC a better and wetter place to live.
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