Masdar Institute makes membrane desal breakthrough

Two faculty members employ nanomaterial to limit membrane fouling

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi
Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi

Two faculty members at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology have made a breakthrough in developing a membrane that can operate in an in-situ cleaning system for desalination purposes.

The institute said a patent application has been filed for the new system that is considered superior to existing techniques.

Dr Nidal Hilal, professor in nano-membranology and water Technologies and Dr Raed Hashaikeh, associate professor in materials science and engineering, invented the system based on a new approach to tackle the challenges in fouling by using nanomaterials.

In addition to cleaning the membrane, the system has the potential to prevent fouling in the first place using a clean and simple periodic procedure without external additives which utilises the seawater as a component and reduces the steps required for desalination.

The system also allows for the cleaning of membranes without the need to shut down the water treatment unit, which minimises operational expenses as well as the costs incurred by using other technologies for desalination.

Dr Raed Hashaikeh said: “We have developed new materials to add new functionalities to the membranes, thus enabling this innovative solution to tackle the fouling problem.

"Based on the preliminary results at the lab on sample membranes, the new technique can provide extremely efficient cleaning of membrane fouling. Our next step is to evaluate the effectiveness and applicability of the technique at the pilot scale. However, this is truly a technology breakthrough for Abu Dhabi and Masdar Institute.”

Dr. Nidal Hilal added: “The degradation of membrane performance due to [bio] fouling and scaling is a major concern for membrane processes in the desalination industry, water and wastewater treatment technologies.

"The membrane degradation involves the deposition of organic, inorganic and biological materials on the surface or inside the porous structure of the membrane. A number of physical and chemical techniques have been used for periodic regeneration of the membranes, which necessitate stopping of operations or removing the membranes from the structure. The new system developed at Masdar Institute addresses this key challenge and comes as a boon to the operators of desalination plants.”

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi alone desalinates about 900m gallons of water per day using conventional fossil fuel technologies, according to statistics from Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority (ADWEA). The demand for water in Abu Dhabi registers an annual increase of about 5-6%.

Current statistics indicate that the GCC region accounts for nearly 50% of the world’s desalinated water. The GCC countries are also expected to invest more than $100bn (AED 367.3bn) in water projects between 2011 and 2016.

The global desalination market is expected to reach $52.4bn (AED 192.5bn) by 2020 - a 320.3% increase on the $12.5bn (AED 45.9bn) figure for 2010, according to a report from energy research publisher SBI Energy.

The report further specifies that the membrane technology reverse osmosis segment will see the largest growth, reaching $39.46bn (AED 144.9bn) by 2020.

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