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Seawater desalination is a technology that provides drinking water for millions of people around the world. With increasing industrialization and water usage and lack of recycling or reuse, the demand for fresh water is increasing at the fastest rate. Industries such as power plants use bulk of water for cooling purpose and chemical industries use water for their processing. Agriculture is also a major user of water and   countries like India exploit ground water for this purpose. To supplement fresh water, Governments and industries in many parts of the world are now turning to desalinated seawater as a potential source of fresh water. However, desalination of seawater to generate fresh water is an expensive option, due to its large energy usage. However, due to frequent failure of monsoon rains and uncertainties and changing weather pattern due to global warming, seawater desalination is becoming a potential source of fresh water, despite its cost and environmental issues.

Seawater desalination technology has not undergone any major changes during the past three decades. Reverse osmosis is currently the most sought after technology for desalination due to increasing efficiencies of the membranes and energy-saving devices. In spite of all these improvements the biggest problem with desalination technologies is still the rate of recovery of fresh water. The best recovery in SWRO plants is about 50% of the input water. Higher recoveries create other problems such as scaling, higher energy requirements and O&M issues and many suppliers would like to restrict the recoveries to 35%, especially when they have to guarantee the life of membranes and the plant.

Seawater is nothing but fresh water with large quantities of dissolved salts. The concentration of total dissolved salts in seawater is about 35,000mgs/lit. Chemical industries such as Caustic soda and Soda ash plants use salt as the basic raw material. Salt is the backbone of chemical industries and number of downstream chemicals are manufactured from salt. Seawater is the major source of salt and most of these chemical industries make their own salt using solar evaporation of seawater using traditional methods with salt pans. Large area of land is required for this purpose and solar evaporation is a slow process and it takes months together to convert seawater into salt. It is also labor intensive under harsh conditions.

The author of this article has developed an innovative technology to generate fresh water as well as salt brine suitable for Caustic soda and Soda ash production. By using this novel process, one is able to recover almost 70% fresh water against only 40% fresh water recovered using conventional SWRO process, and also recover about 7- 9% saturated brine simultaneously. Chemical industries currently producing salt using solar evaporation are unable to meet their demand or expand their production due to lack of salt. The price of salt is steadily increasing due to supply demand gap and also due to uncertainties in weather pattern due to global warming. This result in increased cost of production and many small and medium producers of these chemicals are unable to compete with large industries. Moreover, countries like Australia who have vast arid land can produce large quantities of salt   with mechanized process  competitively; Australia is currently exporting salt to countries like Japan, while countries like India and China are unable to compete in the international market with their age-old salt pans using  manual labor. In solar evaporation the water is simply evaporated.

Currently these chemical industries use the solar salt which has a number of impurities, and it requires an elaborate purification process. Moreover the salt can be used as a raw material only in the form of saturated brine without any impurities. Any impurity is detrimental to the Electrolytic process where the salt brine is converted into Caustic soda and Soda ash. Chemical industries use deionized water to dissolve solar salt to make saturated brine and then purify them using number of chemicals before it can be used as a raw material for the production of Caustic soda or Soda ash. The cost of such purified brine is many times costlier than the raw salt. This in turn increase the cost of chemicals produced.

In this new process, seawater is pumped into the system where it is separated into 70% fresh water meeting WHO specifications for drinking purpose, and 7-10% saturated pure brine suitable for production of caustic soda and Soda ash. These chemical industries also use large quantities of process water for various purposes and they can use the above 70% water in their process. Only 15-20% of unutilized seawater is discharged back into the sea in this process, compared to 65% toxic discharge from convention desalination plants. This new technology is efficient and environmentally friendly and generates value added brine as a by-product. It is a win situation for the industries and the environment. The technology has been recently patented and is available for licensing on a non-exclusive or exclusive basis. The advantage of this technology is any Caustic soda or Soda ash plant located near the seashore can produce their salt brine directly from seawater without stock piling solar salt for months together or transporting over a long distance or importing from overseas.

Government and industries can join together to set up such plants where Governments can buy water for distribution and industries can use salt brine as raw material for their chemical production. Setting up a desalination plants only for supplying drinking water to the public is not a smart way to cut the cost of drinking water. For example, the Victorian Government in Australia has set up a large desalination plant to supply drinking water. This plant was set up by a foreign company on BOOT (build, own and operate basis) and water is sold to the Government on ‘take or pay’ basis. Currently the water storage level at catchment area is nearly 80% of its capacity and the Government is unlikely to use desalinated water for some years to come. However, the Government is legally bound by a contract to buy water or pay the contracted value, even if Government does not need water. Such contracts can be avoided in the future by Governments by joining with industries who require salt brine 24×7  throughout the year, thus mitigating the risk involved by  expensive legal contracts.

 

We have used Hydrocarbon as the source of fuel for our power generation and transportation since industrial revolution. It has resulted in increasing level of man-made Carbon into the atmosphere; and according to the scientists, the level of carbon has reached an unsustainable level and any further emission into the atmosphere will bring catastrophic consequences by way of climate change. We have already saw many natural disasters in a short of span of time. Though there is no direct link established between carbon level in the atmosphere and the global warming, there is certainly enough evidence towards increase in the frequency of natural disasters and increase in the global and ocean temeperatures.We have also seen that Hydrogen is a potential candidate as a source of future energy that can effectively substitute hydrocarbons such as Naphtha or Gasoline. However, hydrogen generation from water using electrolysis is energy intensive and the source of such energy can come only from a renewable source such as solar and wind. Another issue with electrolysis of water for Hydrogen generation is the quality of water used. The quality of water used for electrolysis is high, meeting ASTM Type I Deionized Water preferred, < 0.1 micro Siemen/cm (> 10 megOhm-cm).

A unique desalination technology has been developed by an Australian company to generate on site Hydrogen directly from seawater. In conventional seawater desalination technology using reverse osmosis process only 30-40% of fresh water is recovered as potable water with TDS less than 500 ppm as per WHO standard. The balance highly saline concentrate with TDS above 65,000 ppm is discharged back into the sea which is detrimental to the ocean’s marine life. More and more sweater desalination plants are set up all over the world to mitigate drinking water shortage. This conventional desalination is not only highly inefficient but also causes enormous damage to the marine environment.

The technology developed by the above company will be able to recover almost 75% of fresh water from seawater and also able to convert the concentrate into Caustic soda lye with Hydrogen and Chlorine as by-products by electrolysis. The discharge into the sea is drastically reduced to less than 20% with no toxic chemicals. This technology has a potential to revolutionize the salt and caustic soda industries in the future. Caustic soda is a key raw material for a number of chemical industries including PVC.Conventionally, Caustic soda plants all over the world depends on solar salt for their production of Caustic soda.Hydrogne and Chlorine are by-products.Chlrine is used for the production of PVC (poly vinyl chloride) and Hydrogen is used as a fuel.

In the newly developed technology, the seawater is not only purified from other contaminants such as Calcium, Magnesium and Sulfate ions present in the seawater but also concentrate the seawater almost to a saturation point so that it can be readily used to generate Hydrogen on site. The process is very efficient and commercially attractive because it can recover four valuable products namely, drinking water, Caustic soda lye, Chlorine and Hydrogen. The generated Hydrogen can be used directly in a Fuel cell to generate power to run the electrolysis. This process is very ideal for Caustic soda plants that are now located on seashore. This process can solve drinking water problems around the world because potable water becomes an industrial product. The concentrated seawater can also be converted in a salt by crystallization for food and pharmaceutical applications. There is a growing gap between supply and demand of salt production and most of the chemical industries are depending upon the salt from solar pans.

Another potential advantage with this technology is to use wind power to desalinate the water. Both wind power and Hydrogen will form a clean energy mix. It is a win situation for both water industry and the environment as well as for the salt and chemical industries. In conventional salt production, thousands of hectares of land are used to produce few hundred tons of low quality salt with a year-long production schedule. There is a mis match between the demand for salt by large Caustic soda plants and supply from primitive methods of solar production by solar evaporation contaminating cultivable lands.

The above case is an example of how clean energy technologies can change water, salt and chemical industries and also generate clean power economically, competing with centralized power plants fuelled with hydrocarbons. Innovative technologies can solve problems of water shortage, greenhouse gases, global warming, and environmental pollution not only economically but also environmental friendly way. Industries involved in seawater desalination, salt production, chemical industries such as Caustic soda, Soda ash and PVC interested to learn more on this new technology can write directly to this blog address for further information.

Sodium chloride commonly known as ‘ common salt ‘ is a basic  raw material for the production of a range of chemicals including Caustic soda and Soda ash. The cost salt has been recently increasing steadily due to wide demand supply gap all over the world. This in turn has increased the cost of all other chemicals derived from salt and this situation is expected to continue in future.

Salt industry has been traditionally using a ‘solar evaporation’, an age-old technique from antiquity. The technology involves pumping of seawater on large area of arid land and allowed to evaporate as the concentration of salt increases. The brine then passes on through the various ponds, with the sodium chloride content rising from 2% to 25%. This increasing salinity gives the ponds a distinctive pink color, as algae in strongly saline solutions produce a red pigment called haematochrome. The Red Sea is red for the same reason.

The saturated brine is pumped to smaller ponds where nature continues its work of evaporation. Once the volume has been reduced to 10.2% of the original, any further concentration results in the deposition of sodium chloride. From September to February more brine is added until at least 25 mm of salt has settled and it is time for harvesting. The brine remaining (called “bittern”) is a saturated solution of NaCl, with the other salts present at concentrations well below saturation. This is pumped out to sea just before the harvest is gathered, as these ions would contaminate the salt if all the water were evaporated off. For four to six weeks beginning in early March, mechanical harvesters scoop up the crystallized salt and load it on to trucks that shuttle back and forth across the ponds to the washer. In the two washing plants the salt is washed in clean saturated brine, where the other salts, present as impurities, dissolve. From their hundreds of tones of clean washed salt are discharged daily on to the stacks for storage – up to 10,000 tons per day. During winter no more salt is recovered, but the plant continues its regular work of processing and bagging the stockpiled salt.

But this raw salt has number of impurities such as Calcium, Magnesium and Sulfate ions which are harmful for the production of further chemicals. Though the cost of producing salt is cheaper by solar evaporation, the cost of purifying salt from above impurities and making suitable brine for chemical production is expensive .The cost of salt used in chemical processing industries after transportation and purification increase to whopping $ 200 and above. Many Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Indonesia are major importers of salt. The salt import by the above importers in Asia pacific region between 2000 and 2009 has increased by 6 million tonnes, equal to 40% or 4.6% per annum.In four years between 2005 and 2009, the price of salt increased  by US$25/Mt, equal to 83% or 16% per annum.The average price of imported salt varies between US$40 to $47/Mt. (Ref: Salt partners).

Erratic weather patterns, sea level rise, Tsunami, inundation, flooding and unseasonal rains have hampered salt production all over the world. The chemical industries are facing an uncertain future and unpredictable pricing of salt. Prolonged winter in Europe and US and other parts of the world have pushed the demand for salt for de-icing. India is the third largest and cheapest producer of salt in the world with lowest labor cost. But even in India, the prices of salt have gone up recently from Rs.600 to Rs.1000/Mt.

An Australian company has developed and patented an innovative technology to solve the above problems. The company uses membrane technology to produce Sodium chloride brine directly from seawater suitable for all chemical products in the downstream. This novel technology separates seawater into salt and drinking water, after all seawater has about 95% pure water. It can solve the problems of many mining companies in Australia who need Caustic soda as well as water for their processing.India can certainly adopt this technology because shrinking coastal land for solar evaporation will become  scarcer in the future.

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