For Water's Worth

Desalination sustains modern life in the desert, but it’s costly.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

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.

Nidal Hilal, professor of engineering and director of the NYUAD Water Research Center, and Raed Hashaikeh, professor of mechanical engineering, know this. Their research, and their lab, revolve around the challenge of solving water scarcity in the Arabian Gulf.

“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.

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 H20 from salts. Membranes are challenging the aging energy-intensive presence of thermal desalination that is so prevalent in this region but nowhere else in the world.

“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."

Nidal Hilal, professor of engineering and director of the NYUAD Water Resesrch Center

“Many companies in the past resisted using membranes for their own commercial interests. However, membrane technology has proven to be very successful on industrial scale and reverse osmosis desalination plants around the world are a clear example of that. The vast majority of desalination plants that have been built in the last 20 years around the world are membrane based. However, the adoption for membrane technology has been slow in this region,” he said.

But the benefits of membrane desalination are overwhelming, and governments are finally coming around. As Gulf nations look to break free from thermal desalination, which is much more energy intensive, they’re faced with another challenge. Membranes tend to foul and with time, flux through the membrane is reduced and its efficiency drops.

The Arabian Gulf is the warmest sea and among the most saline. Membranes imported from other parts of the world get the job done but quickly become defunct as their specifications do not match the needs of the water. One of the lab’s goals is to develop technologies capable of clearing the membranes from foulants in an efficient and practical way.

“Another challenge is that desalination plants produce a significant amount of waste brine, which would increase the salinity of the Arabian Gulf. New government regulations are restricting that and the desalination industry needs to come up with innovative solutions to meet the new regulations,” said Hashaikeh.

The researchers are working on a number of membranes and desalination technologies that will address these local challenges. The goal is to make technological advances that would allow desalination plants in the Arabian desert 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 further prove their efficacy.