Desalination grows in traditional markets, and also in new markets
Traditionally, desalination has accounted for a significant share of the water supply only in the most water-deprived areas. In several countries on or near the Persian Gulf, desalination provides the majority of the drinking water supply. Aside from this regional market, desalination techniques were used in smaller communities with compromised natural water supplies, or in select industrial applications.
But as the world’s population has continued to grow, the global water supply has remained the same. And of that finite amount of fresh water, only a small share of it is suitable for human consumption. As a result, desalination has become a more viable approach to address water supply concerns worldwide, creating a market expected to exceed $15 billion by 2015.
Membrane desalination gains market share; thermal techniques strong in Middle East
Traditional techniques for desalination involve thermal processes. The most common thermal processes, multi-stage flash (MSF) distillation and multipleeffect distillation (MED), are reliable and capable of producing pure water from the saltiest seawater sources, including the Persian Gulf. However, these techniques -- particularly MSF -- consume large amounts of energy. These techniques tend to be economically viable only when water shortages are most severe and when local energy supplies are abundant -- such as in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and a few other countries in the region. Elsewhere, shortages of quality water can also be daunting, but vast amounts of energy are less readily available. This is true in China, Spain, Australia and parts of the United States -- where populations have outgrown native water supplies or local water supplies contain so much salt and other dissolved solids that they are not fit for use. These difficulties are perhaps most severe in Middle Eastern and North African nations not endowed with plentiful oil and gas reserves but beset with similarly arid conditions, lack of indigenous water supplies, and, in some cases, substantial population growth and urbanization rates.
As a result, lower-cost membrane-based technologies are growing more rapidly. Membrane systems have been the main technology for brackish water desalination in the US and elsewhere. Seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) is expected to be one of the fastest growing niches in the global desalination market. The US, Spain, China, Australia and other countries are using more seawater as the source water for desalination processes. Most of the largest municipal facilities in these countries will use membrane-based techniques. Many countries in the Africa/ Mideast region -- such as Algeria and Israel -- will rely on membrane desalination to supply growing water needs. Even oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia are raising their SWRO capacity to conserve energy supplies for other uses or export.
Overall, membrane techniques are forecast to account for most new desalination capacity. Improvements to membranes extending their functional lives and reducing their vulnerability to fouling will drive demand for RO systems, and for the membranes and other products used in these systems. Growth for MED systems -- including evaporators, pumps and other products -- will be driven by improved energy efficiency, especially when compared to MSF. Energy cost reductions via the use of energy recovery systems and plants designed to use power plant waste energy will also serve to make desalination systems more economically feasible. This is very important, as cost (and energy cost in particular) has been the primary restraining factor on the global desalination market.