Saudi to Use Plentiful Resource (Sunlight) to Produce Scarce Resource (Fresh Water)

By Smriti Rao | April 8, 2010 4:35 pm

ibmsolarIn the hot desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finding fresh drinking water has always been a great challenge. For decades now, the state has been providing clean water by converting millions of gallons of seawater via desalination plants that remove salts and minerals from the water. Now the country plans to use one of its most abundant resources to counter its fresh-water shortage: sunshine [Technology Review].

Working on a joint project with IBM, Saudi Arabia’s national research group King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) has announced that it will open the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant by 2012 in the city of Al-Khafji. The pilot plant will not just supply 30,000 cubic meters of clean water per day to 100,000 people, but will also reduce operating costs in the long run by harvesting energy from sunshine. Saudi Arabia, the top desalinated water producer in the world, uses 1.5 million barrels of oil per day at its plants, according to Arab News [Technology Review].

In the new desalination plant, the Saudis hope to slash energy costs by deploying a new kind of concentrated photovoltaic technology, which uses lenses or mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto solar panels. The technology will concentrate the sun 1,500 times on a solar cell to boost efficiency. That’s about three times the solar concentration of most concentrating photovoltaic panels currently in operation [The New York Times]. The system’s upgrade is due to a device that IBM came up with back when the company was designing mainframe computers and trying to ensure that they didn’t overheat. The device, called a liquid metal thermal interface, uses a highly conductive liquid metal to transfer heat away. In the desalination plant, the devices will serve as heat sinks to prevent the photovoltaics from breaking down under such extreme, concentrated heat.

The energy generated by these solar arrays would then power the plant’s desalination process, which will be accomplished via reverse osmosis. In this technique, seawater is forced through a polymer membrane at high pressure, which filters out salt and contaminants. The Al-Khafji plant will use an advanced nano-membrane that IBM and KACST developed, which researchers say allows water to flow through 25 to 50 percent faster than conventional membranes used in desalination plants.

The Al-Khafji desalination plant is the first of three steps in a solar-energy program launched by KACST to reduce desalination costs. The second step will be a 300,000-cubic-meter facility, and the third phase will involve several more solar-power desalination plants at various locations [Technology Review].

Related Content:
80beats:Flying the Sunny Skies: Solar-Powered Plane Completes 2-Hour Test Flight
80beats:A Novel That Laughs Along with Climate Change: Ian McEwan’s Solar
80beats: 2 New Nanotech Super Powers: Desalinating Sea Water and Treating Cancer
80beats: San Diego Residents Will Soon Be Drinking Desalinated Seawater
DISCOVER: Water, Water Everywhere, So Let’s All Have a Drink explores the idea of offshore desalination platforms

Image: IBM

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • bigjohn756

    Good! Now, if we can only get them to stop executing people for sorcery.

  • Yuki A Y

    Instead of oil, the use of solar energy is much more friendly for the environment. Good policy.

  • Matt Tarditti

    I hope they utilize some efficiency-boosting heat capture technology on that liquid metal heat exchanger. I imagine that they can use the captured heat to run a steam turbine. Every little bit counts!

  • scott

    Now if only Vegas could light itself with such solar technology.

  • Kin

    Actually Matt, it doesnt really.

    There is plenty of sunshine that could be cheaper to run a steam turbine than complicated heat capture technology. As in, it’s not like a power plants wasted heat from coal that is useful heat. Saudi arabia has excess heat.

    I’m suprised they dont just run modified steam plants that are heated by concentration mirrors that collect the steam as purified water. I’m guessing however the economics dont work out, but even then, I’m suprised….Maybe it’s just the volume problem, 30,000 cubic meters of water would be a LOT of steam.

  • Chris Landau

    Excellent. Now take this technology and set it up on every desert coast around the world to increase our fresh water. Build a million of them.
    Chris Landau

  • steeleweed

    …”back when the company was designing mainframe computers…”
    Somebody ought to tell the writer IBM is still making mainframes….:-D

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