Livable Planet: Rethinking Desalination Technology

NYU Abu Dhabi’s Water Research Center works on the challenge of solving water scarcity in the Arabian Gulf.

From the times of Bedouins roaming the vast expanse of the Arabian desert to the creation of some of the world’s largest economic and cultural hubs today, securing water is among this region’s top priorities. The wells and oases that secured freshwater sources for the Peninsula’s ancestors for generations have long dried out, replaced by a deceptively unlimited source of water: desalination. But the technology behind purifying seawater is in major need of an upgrade and NYU Abu Dhabi researchers are providing new, sustainable solutions to this age-old challenge of sustaining life in the desert.

NYUAD’s Water Research Center aims to promote innovative research in water desalination, wastewater treatment, environmental policy, and social issues that can lead to water security and sustainability.

Nidal Hilal, the center’s director, has been delving into ways to make water more sustainable by focusing on innovative desalination techniques, water reuse, and water harvesting. Hilal’s work at the center deploys advanced membrane technology using nanomaterials to enhance the energy efficiency of desalination.

“Our great-grandfather’s water consumption was minuscule compared to yours and your children’s. On top of that, modern industries need water and growing populations need food, which uses lots of water. For this demand, we need to tap into conventional and unconventional technologies, to find ways of producing freshwater. Water is essential for all aspects of life. Who has the water owns the future,” says Hilal.

Hilal researches the challenge of solving water scarcity in the Arabian Gulf. He works with membrane technologies capable of reverse osmosis desalination, a process whereby seawater is pumped through a thin polymeric film that separates fresh water from salty feed. The technology requires less energy to desalinate seawater than the traditional use of thermal desalination, which boils water to separate H2O from salts.

However, membranes tend to get soiled, and with time, flux through the membrane is reduced and its efficiency drops. The WRC are working on a number of membranes and desalination technologies that will address these challenges. The goal is to make technological advances that would allow desalination plants in the Arabian Gulf to meet new wastewater regulations. The lab will continue to conduct tests on these membranes to improve their performance, and it will begin scaling up production to test the prototypes in industrial conditions to prove their efficacy.

The center serves as an interdisciplinary innovation hub for research in water desalination and membrane technology innovation, wastewater treatment, and social issues, where scientific knowledge is transformed into practical solutions.

Driven by the need for localized solutions, Hilal tailors membranes are better suited for the harsh conditions of the Arabian Gulf. Hilal is confident that COP28 this year will further raise attention to water, catalyze action, and build partnerships to achieve international water goals.

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