China plant opts for osmotics tech that slashes energy needed for desalination

I've gotten to explore all sorts of concepts in my role here at GreenTech Pastures, including one of my favorites from high-school biology, osmosis. For those of you without school-age kids, this is the process by which water moves through membranes or flows from cell to cell.

I've gotten to explore all sorts of concepts in my role here at GreenTech Pastures, including one of my favorites from high-school biology, osmosis. For those of you without school-age kids, this is the process by which water moves through membranes or flows from cell to cell. Confession: I had to look the word up as a refresher, so don't feel bad if you have to do the same.

As I've written here before, the principles of osmosis have some compelling, emerging applications when it comes to energy generation and, in particular, energy related to water desalination. A report that I covered here earlier this year suggested that osmotic technologies located near deltas and estuaries could generate from 1,600 to 1,700 terawatt-hours of electricity per year by 2030. That amount is roughly half the total energy demand in Europe.

I'm not so sure about those numbers, but the fact is that reverse osmotics could help reduce the amount of energy needed to create fresh water out of saltwater. Essentially, you use the pressure of the water and the motion that it creates moving throughout the process to help power the process.

This is very important, since our freshwater supply is increasingly being called into question and we really need to start looking more at our desalination options, especially in places like California where water is pumped a ridiculous distance--and at a huge waste.

In fact, a new report ("Value of Water") released earlier this week by ITT suggests the amount of clean water being lost each year in the United States alone is 2 trillion gallons. This waste is attributable to the deterioration of our country's water pipes and outdated treatment plants. Many people are suggesting that its time for a serious overhaul, although those potential investments are very much overshadowed by our other problems, according to the survey.

In any case, I recently spoke with a company that is pioneering what it calls energy recovery devices for desalination, Energy Recovery. This week, Energy Recovery announced it has scored a deal to install its PX Pressure Exchanger technology at a reverse osmosis desalination facility being built in Qingdao, China, by Befesa. The technology will help offset the energy that's needed to produce more than 26.4 million gallons of potable water, when the plant becomes operational in 2012.

When I spoke with Energy Recovery President and CEO G.G. Pique about the company's technology earlier this year, he said the devices help reduce the amount of power needed for desalination typically by 60 percent. There are more than 8,600 PX devices installed around the world in places including India, Spain and Algeria. But investments in the United States have been slower to encourage, Pique admits.

With all the other fights we have going on right now here in the United States, I'm not naive enough to think that the government will make desalination a priority. But this technology is finding a footing abroad, and it would be in our interest to see if osmotics can help dramatically reduce the production of clean water -- to the point where it might be a better local option for some states than pumping or trucking it in from elsewhere.

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