Posted by Big Gav in desalination
A Canadian startup has built a pilot desalination plant in Vancouver that uses a quarter of the energy of conventional plants to remove salt from seawater. The process relies on concentration gradients, and the natural tendency of sodium and chloride ions--the key components of salt--to flow from higher to lower salinity concentrations. If the system can be scaled up it could offer a cheaper way to bring drinking water to the planet's most parched regions while leaving behind a much lower carbon footprint than other desalination methods.
"We've taken it from a benchtop prototype to a fully functional seawater pilot plant," says inventor Ben Sparrow, a mechanical engineer who established Saltworks Technologies in 2008 to commercialize the process. "The plant is currently running on real seawater, and we're in the final stage of expanding it to a capacity of 1,000 liters a day."
Today most desalination plants are based on one of two approaches. One is distillation through an evaporation-condensation cycle, and the other is membrane filtration through reverse osmosis. But both options are energy-intensive and costly.
Saltworks takes a completely different approach based on the principles of ionic exchange. The process begins with the creation of a reservoir of seawater that is evaporated until its salt concentration rises from 3.5 percent to 18 percent or higher.
The evaporation is done in one of two ways: either the seawater is sprayed into a shallow pond exposed to sunlight and dry ambient air, or seawater is kept in a large tower that's exposed to waste heat from a neighboring industrial facility. The second approach is used in the commercial-scale plant. The concentrated water is then pumped at low pressure into the company's desalting unit along with three separated streams of regular seawater. At this point the most energy-intensive part of the process is already over.