Saudis and IBM to build solar-powered desalination plant

Up to 100,000 people in the Saudi Arabian city of Al Khafji could get fresh water from the sun.

The joint research has developed two key technologies: ultra-high concentrator photovoltaics (UHCPV), capable of operating at a concentration greater than 1,500 suns, and a nanomembrane that filters out salts as well as potentially harmful toxins in water while using less energy than other forms of water purification.

These will form the basis of the energy-efficient and solar-powered desalination plant with an expected production capacity of 30,000 cubic meters per day, to be built in Al Khafji.  

The researchers noted that 41 per cent of the world’s population – 2.3 billion people – currently lives in water-stressed areas, and this number is expected to grow to 3.5 billion by 2025.  According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.

Because over 97 percent of the world’s water is in the oceans, turning salt water into fresh water offers tremendous potential for addressing the growing demand for clean water.  One of the most efficient means of desalination is reverse osmosis, but obstacles to this include bio-fouling, degradation by chlorine and low flux challenges. The KACST/IBM joint research focuses on improving polymeric membranes through nanoscale modification of polymer properties to make desalination much more efficient and much less costly.

“Our collaborative research with KACST has led to innovative technologies in the areas of solar power and of water desalination,” said Sharon Nunes, vice president, IBM Big Green Innovations.  “Using these new technologies, we will create energy-efficient systems we believe can be implemented across Saudi Arabia and around the world.”  

The KACST scientists added that current methods for seawater desalination cost between 2.5 and 5.5 Saudi Riyals per cubic metre. By combining solar power with the new nanomembrane, the goal of this project is to significantly reduce the cost of desalinating seawater at these plants.

“Currently, Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world, and we continue to invest in new ways of making access to fresh water more affordable,” said Dr Turki Al Saud, KACST's vice president for research institutes. “Water has the first priority in the Science, Technology and Innovation Plan of the Kingdom, overseen by KACST.”

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