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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.

 

Seawater is an inexhaustible source of Hydrogen but the cost of generating Hydrogen from seawater is much higher compared to normal tap water. The quality of water should have a minimum electric conductivity at 0.1 micro Siemens/cm for electrolysis. Even our tap water is not up to this purity and it requires further purification. The electric conductivity of seawater is about 54,000 micro Siemens/cm.The conductivity increases due to the presence of dissolved salts. But seawater can be desalinated using the process of distillation or by the process called ‘reverse osmosis’. In both the above processes, desalination requires a large input of energy in the form of thermal or electrical. Currently the source of such energy comes from fossil fuels, which is one the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas emission. Many countries in the Middle East have shortage of fresh water and most of these countries depend on desalination of seawater for their fresh water requirements. The cost of desalinated water varies from $ 1.00 to $ 1.75/m3 depending upon the capacity, site and the cost of energy. The fresh water for potable purpose normally has a TDS (Total dissolved solids) of 500ppm (parts per million) or less and this can further be lowered to a required level using reverse osmosis.

Currently Hydrogen is generated as a by-product on an industrial scale by electrolysis of saturated sodium chloride brine during the production of Caustic soda. Chlorine is another by-product in the above process. Most of Caustic soda manufacturers use Hydrogen as a fuel or for the production of Hydrochloric acid. But there is an opportunity in caustic soda plants to use Hydrogen to generate more electricity using PEM (Proto exchange membrane) Fuel cell suitable for their electrolysis. This will aid these industries to cut their energy consumption, which is one of the highest in Chemical industries.

Alternatively, offshore wind turbines can be installed to generate power for seawater desalination and Hydrogen production. Offshore wind turbines generate 50% more energy than onshore wind turbines. An integrated process to generate fresh water, Hydrogen using wind turbine is an interesting renewable energy application. The stored Hydrogen can used to generate electricity in remote islands where diesel is used as a fuel. Most of the island in Pacific use diesel predominantly for boat as well as for power generators at exorbitant costs. The wind velocity in such islands is good to generate cheap and clean electricity. For example, the island of PNG has a severe power shortage and it is well located near Coral Sea, which has one of the highest wind velocities in Pacific Ocean. An average wind velocity of 7mts/sec and above is an ideal place for wind turbines. Since these islands are small with less population, wind generated Hydrogen is an ideal solution for their power problems. They can also desalinate seawater to supply drinking water using wind generated power. In fact they can also use Hydrogen as a fuel for their boats and generate power for their cold storage for fisheries. International financial institutions and local banks should come forward to fund such projects instead of funding diesel boats and generators. These islands have pristine water and abundant fish and their main income is only tourism.

Sun, Sand and wind is an ideal combination to generate renewable power all round the year and for tourism industry. It is an opportunity these islands cannot afford to miss. The author is personally involved in a wind based Hydrogen solution for a small island in pacific. The people of this island welcome such projects because it guarantees them an uninterrupted supply of clean power and drinking water. Otherwise they have to sell most of fish catches in a nearby city to buy diesel and drinking water just to survive!

 

 

We know from the famous equation  of Albert Einstein , that a tiny amount of mass is a vast storehouse of energy. But even the molecular Hydrogen as a result of water decomposition, is a promising energy source of the future. However, the amount of energy we use to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen is higher compared to the amount of energy that Hydrogen can generate using Fuel celll. But we can mitigate this problem by using Renewable   energy such as PV solar, Solar (thermal), wind energy, geothermal energy, and Ocean thermal energy conversion. The cost of renewable energy is still expensive for two reasons;

  1. We are used to cheap energy from fossil fuels for decades, and we have already recovered most of these investments.

2. A complete switch over to renewable energy technologies will require massive new investment. Unlike the investments we made on fossil fuel infrastructures over several decades, we have to invest on renewable Energy development on a massive scale, and we have to deploy them in a shorter span of time, simultaneously all over the world. Currently there is no such infrastructure in renewable energy industry in existence.

Meanwhile the unabated emission of carbon dioxide by fossil fuels is causing global warming. There are many skeptics on the science on global warming. Such skepticism does not stem from the fact that they have a concrete proof but, ‘such skepticism’ serves their vested interest. Politicians who are in power do not want any increase in the cost of energy, which becomes unpopular among people may eventually, throw them out of power. They say they want to serve people with low cost energy but, neither politicians nor the common man understands the consequences of such measures.

It will be our future generations who will face the brunt of this skepticism, by facing fuel shortage or unaffordable cost of fuel, erratic climate change, and frequent natural catastrophies.It is time for the world to act decisively and swiftly and move towards renewable energy, by massive investment and creation of new skills and jobs on a very large scale.

The companies who have massively invested in fossil power plants, and the governments who depend on the support of such companies and who want to keep the energy cost low, because of its popularity, are the major list of scientists opposing main stream scientific assessment of global warming. The hidden cost of environmental challenges and its consequences is much higher than the savings, due to cheap fossil fuels. It requires a paradigm shift and a sense of social justice, in the minds of Governments and companies. It is not all that difficult to switch over to cleaner technologies. In fact most of the technologies are already available and it requires only a ‘will, bold decision and leadership’ by Governments.

Any clean energy solution should be sustainable in the long run. Hydrogen can meet not only the sustainability but even the transition from fossil fuel to Hydrogen will be smooth. To start with all existing fossil fuel infrastructures can be modified towards Hydrogen generation, and fuel cell based Electricity generation  infrastructures. Of course this will require large investment but compared to a complete shift to renewable energy, it will require only a relatively smaller investment. For example, all fuel stations can be converted into Hydrogen stations by simply installing steam reformers, including LNG based fuel stations. All gasoline based automobiles can be either fitted with Hydrogen IC engines, or converted to fuel cells cars similar to Honda FXL models. If the Governments all over the world can agree for such conversion and a complete shift to Hydrogen economy then, it can become a reality in the next decade. We have to focus on ‘Renewable Hydrogen’, which can come from seawater, a waste source of Hydrogen using renewable energy sources, and Biohydrogen  using from waste organic matters. The future generation will not only have a cleaner and affordable fuel but, a more sustainable future!

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