Water Desalination Technology

Written By Brianna Panzica

Posted August 27, 2012

Today marks the start of the eleventh annual World Water Week, a convention held in Stockholm by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

Scientists and water industry representatives from over 100 nations are meeting to discuss water efficiency and the problem of waste.

A major problem in excess water consumption is actually food waste, the first topic that the summit addressed.

From the Huffington Post:

“More than one-fourth of all the water we use worldwide is taken to grow over one billion tons of food that nobody eats. That water…is sent down the drain,” Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of the SIWI, explained at the start of the summit.

One third of all food in the world is wasted, according to the summit. And this means that all the water used to grow this food is wasted as well.

This year, the U.S. has started to get an idea for just how limited the resource actually is. Freshwater, of course, is needed to grow crops. But this past summer, over half the nation experienced drought, affecting the output of the corn crop that is used for both food and ethanol and contributing to higher food prices.

Then, on top of that, the water that became even more limited this summer was also demanded by oil and gas companies involved in the U.S. shale boom. Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), after all, requires millions of gallons of water.

And I still haven’t mentioned drinking water. With a world population that just breached 7 billion, large amounts of freshwater are necessary to support the growing numbers, particularly in developing nations.

From Bloomberg:

“Water right now is a strain on this planet more than carbon,” Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) Chief Executive Officer Andrew Liveris said in an interview this month in London. “We mismanage water terribly. It’s going to be a big issue.”

But one method is growing as a way to tackle the issue.

According to Global Water Intelligence, desalination is set to become a $17 billion industry by 2016. Just this year, it jumped to $8.9 billion from $5 billion last year. And as even more water is demanded for energy processes like fracking, it will nearly double in four years.

Desalination equipment turns ocean water into fresh water. The process, according to Bloomberg, dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but it was not to become an industry until post-World War II. The first plant in the U.S. was located in Freeport, Texas and built by Dow Chemical Co. (NYSE: DOW) in 1961.

The process of reverse osmosis, using a membrane to remove salt, was used in the 1990s. Though it still costs ten times as much as traditional water sources, the cost was reduced by half since its conception to $1 per cubic meter.

The majority of the world’s desalination plants are currently in the Middle East. There are 30 plants in China and eight in India, though both nations have more planned for the near future.

While traditional distillation remains the most common technique, reverse osmosis still has about 45% of the distillation market. But a new process in the works called forward osmosis cuts down on the amount of heat and energy necessary for the process, and it could reduce the cost by 30% according to Modern Water Plc (LON: MWG), a company that uses the process.

Major companies involved in distillation include General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), Dow Chemical Co., and Acciona SA (MCE: ANA), though smaller companies like Flowserve Corp. (NYSE: FLS) and Energy Recovery Inc. (NASDAQ: ERII) also have an influence on the market. Oasys Water Inc. specifically works with oil and gas companies in the U.S.

The world drinking water demand will continue to rise with the population. But demand will also continue to rise in other areas such as the shale boom. As nations such as Argentina and Russia begin to explore their shale possibilities, this will only grow further.

The desalination process could prove key to the need for more of the resource, particularly as the shale boom continues to expand nationally and globally.

That’s all for now,

Brianna Panzica

follow basic@brianna_panzica on Twitter

Energy & Capital’s modern energy guru, Brianna digs deep into the industry with accurate and insightful updates into the biggest energy companies and events. She stays up to date with the latest market moves and industry finds, bringing readers a unique view of current energy trends.

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