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We recently spoke with Guillem Gilabert Oriol, Desalination Technical Leader of the company, to learn about the latest technological innovations developed in the field of desalination, as well as their position within a sector in unstoppable growth.
What are the main treatments used in the field of desalination?
In the field of desalination, and especially in the case of seawater desalination, the most widely used technology today is reverse osmosis membranes since, unlike thermal processes, these allow for energy savings of around 40%. Ultrafiltration technology is also widely used in the field of reverse osmosis pretreatment since it makes possible the collection of high-quality water, eliminating practically all suspended solids, bacteria, and viruses, thus helping to improve the performance of reverse osmosis membranes.
What are the most cutting-edge technologies applied to these treatments?
In recent years we have witnessed a flourish in the development of new technologies for membrane desalination. Regarding those technologies leading the way, I would highlight several innovations. The first, and for me the one that has the most impact, is the DRY (dry-tested) membranes for seawater, as it allows the membranes to be preserved before use for longer, and also, due to their lighter weight, the carbon footprint of the membranes is reduced significantly. Since dry-tested membranes do not need to be stored with that solution, they support longer storage periods, lower labour costs, and allow for easier long-term planning of warehouses. Dry-tested seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) membranes also have the advantage of being 4 kg lighter than wet membranes, making them easier to handle, safer to install and easier and cheaper to transport. Another innovation I would highlight is the FilmTec™ Seamaxx™ membranes. These membranes make it possible to desalinate seawater, achieving maximum energy savings thanks to the optimized membrane chemistry, which minimizes the membrane’s operating pressure. Another important development has come from membranes resistant to fouling, especially biological “biofouling”.
We are getting closer and closer to the theoretical thermodynamic limit of desalination, and it is for this reason that it is more evident than ever that we must innovate beyond product
This is made possible thanks to the new FilmTec™ SW30XFR-400/34. It is a fouling resistant SWRO element specifically designed to handle biofouling in SWRO Desalination Plants. This is achieved thanks to its fouling-resistant design, durable membrane chemistry, and low-pressure drop design. All these special features enable achieving a very significant reduction in the number of chemical cleanings due to biofouling. Finally, and we are probably talking about the most innovative technology currently on the market, I would like to highlight the DuPont™ B-Free™ technology, an innovative pretreatment that is placed between Ultrafiltration and Reverse Osmosis and that manages to protect the reverse osmosis membranes from biofouling, practically eliminating chemical cleanings in reverse osmosis, and thus increasing the membranes’ useful life, as well as reducing the time the plant is down and increasing its productivity.
It should also be noted that B-Free™ has been successfully tested at the Masplomas I desalination plant at the company Elmasa. During an eighteen-month trial, DuPont™ B-Free™ has been shown to completely eliminate biofouling, thus allowing for a trouble-free operation of the pilot plant, while the parallel full-scale plant continued to suffer from the negative effects of biofouling. The system configuration at Elmasa’s pilot plant was comprised of ultrafiltration, DuPont™ B-Free™ and reverse osmosis.
Could you mention some of the company’s success stories?
At DuPont, we have decided to commit to product quality. In this way, we can offer high durability for our products, thus extending the useful life of the membranes and helping our customers reduce their total operating costs. With more than one million membranes installed worldwide and the first large seawater desalination plant in Ashkelon as a reference, I would like to highlight several success stories.
I also wanted to highlight the innovation that will be seen and is being seen in digitalization, meaning that we are ever closer to being able to control your desalination plant from your cellphone
In Spain, we have the cases of the Torrevieja plant with more than 25,000 membranes, which has been operating for more than 7 years with our membranes with no replacements, the Alicante plant with more than 6,000 membranes, which has been operating for more than 12 years with our membranes with no replacements, the Águilas plant with more than 20. 000 membranes, which has been operating with our membranes for more than 7 years with no replacements. There are even more cases which prove the longevity of our membranes, e.g. the San Pedro del Pinatar plant with more than 6,000 membranes, which has been operating with our membranes for more than 14 years with no replacements, or the Khor Fakkan plant in the United Arab Emirates, with more than 1,700 membranes, which has been operating with our membranes for more than 8 years with no replacements, as well as the Perth and Southern Seawater Desalination Plants in Australia, with more than 18,000 membranes each, which have been operating for more than 10 and 9 years respectively with our membranes and with no replacements.
How has the development of new technologies affected the expansion of this market?
From my point of view, one thing is clear, we are getting closer and closer to the theoretical thermodynamic limit of desalination, and it is for this reason that it is more evident than ever that we must innovate beyond product specifications. These innovations, which have been favoured by the development of more efficient membranes, along with desalination plant components such as more efficient motors and valves, and the development of isobaric pressure exchangers, have reduced the cost of desalination from the two dollars or more per cubic meter it cost in the 1980s to less than fifty cents per cubic meter that it is at currently.
What are the global desalination trends for the coming years?
I also wanted to highlight the innovation that will be seen and is being seen in digitalization, meaning that we are ever closer to being able to control your desalination plant from your cellphone and that the plant can make automatic decisions to reduce operating costs. One important aspect is membrane performance data normalization. Let me explain to you what this means. Fluctuations in operating conditions such as water temperature, feed water quality, operating flux or system recovery settings will cause permeate flow, feed pressure and salt passage to change over time. This is a normal physical phenomenon, but it can be misread as an operating issue. Data normalization eliminates the effects of these fluctuating operating conditions and allows monitoring of the system performance based on membrane properties alone, showing the true performance and health of the ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis membranes. As an r example, we have a digital tool called DuPont WaterApp, where apart from calculating these economic and environmental savings, we can create a simulation and instantly normalize any ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis installation and see if it is operating as it should and anticipate any corrective action that may be required.