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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Ben-Gurion University scientists are tackling two of the Middle East's biggest issues in one go: peace and the environment.
They have received grants to develop new desalination technology that is faster and cheaper than conventional ways of cleaning dirty groundwater.
The researchers have been working with colleagues from the Hashemite University of Jordan and the University of Colorado at Boulder, and plan to build their new plants in both Israel and Jordan.
The Israeli scientists were awarded grants by the NATO Science for Peace project and the Middle East Desalination Research Center to advance their method for achieving very high yields in desalination of brackish groundwater using reverse osmosis.
The team members received the grants at the beginning of the year, and have already begun building a pilot unit in Sde Boker, which they hope to have operating by the beginning of 2010. They are scheduled to begin work in Jordan in late 2010 or early 2011.
Dr. Jack Gilron of BGU's Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Sde Boker is one of the leaders of the research team. "NATO Science for Peace is a program run on an ongoing basis in which NATO tries to encourage cooperation between countries in the Mediterranean and the NATO alliance to advance science projects that could enhance peace and stability in the area," he told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
While some of the projects sponsored by the program could be seen as typical "peace-related" projects, "they [NATO] also understand that you need to deal with underlying issues that could be the source of the tension [between countries such as Israel and Jordan]. By dealing with those issues, you give the region better potential for peace."
Desalination by reverse osmosis works by forcing brackish water through a semi-permeable membrane. Membrane fouling - whereby the surface of the membrane's pores becomes blocked by salts or other particles suspended in the water, leading to a loss in production capacity - is one of the main issues in the process. The BGU team has developed a method of exploiting the finite kinetics of the membrane fouling processes by periodically relieving the conditions leading to membrane fouling before it can occur.
According to Gilron, the advantages of the new technology are clear. He explained that, with conventional desalination technology, "depending on the composition of the water, you are limited in the amount of [clean] water you can get from well water. Depending on the concentration of sparingly soluble salts, you can only get maybe 80-85 cubic meters per hour [from 100 cubic meters per hour of well water]."
"With our technique, we would get between 92 and 95 cubic meters an hour - only five to seven cubic meters an hour of brine. We are reducing the overall cost, and getting more water.
"This greatly reduces the environmental burden and improves the economics of the inland desalination process... Water scarcity and the need to develop new water resources for populations not on the seacoasts are driving efforts to desalinate brackish water and municipal wastewater with ever-increasing efficiencies," he said.
The new technology is cheaper because it reduces the quantity of brine that needs to be dealt with, as well as the amount of chemicals required in the desalination process.
The team is looking forward to getting the project going.
"Now instead of talking about it in the laboratory, we want to see it operating in the real world," Gilron said. "The initial efforts we made in this area began in 2003, and my colleagues from Colorado began working on their sensor [which will be incorporated into the technology] in the late 1990s. We have only been talking about putting things together in the past few years."
He said, however, that much of the team's efforts over the past few years had focused on securing funding - a daunting task.
"One of the most frustrating things about working in water technology and desalination is that, while public policy-makers always talk about how important it is, the amount of funding set aside here in Israel and elsewhere in the world for development of technology comes nothing close to matching what [policy-makers] claim is the importance [of this work]," Gilron said.
A new start-up company, ROTEC (Reverse Osmosis Technologies), has been established to commercialize the technology. ROTEC has already been chosen by Mekorot national water company as a promising firm in which it will invest research and development funds.