Monday, 22 March 2010

Solution to a thirsty world: sea water without the salt

Neil McDougall of Modern Water says taking seawater and making it drinkable could be the answer to a looming shortage
Ben Marlow

MIDDLE East government officials spent last week in Vienna, discussing oil at a meeting of Opec, the producers’ cartel. In Oman, however, another dwindling resource was top of the agenda.
In the coastal town of Al Khaluf, Oman’s minister for water turned on a desalination plant that will provide the area with 100 cubic metres of fresh, clean water every day — enough for 80,000 people.
The plant was sold by Modern Water, a British company that claims places such as Oman will become increasingly reliant on desalination — taking seawater and making it drinkable — as the world’s water resources are depleted.
In less than 20 years, 5.3 billion people — two-thirds of the world’s population in 2025, according to UN estimates — will face a shortage of water. London could be among those places. Governments are increasingly worried about water scarcity. It will be one of the issues discussed at UN World Water Day this week.
“The world’s population tripled in the 20th century while water consumption grew sixfold. Depleted water resources have implications for global security, health and life expectancy,” said Neil McDougall, Modern Water’s chief executive.
“The earth’s surface is made up of 70% water. However, 97.5% of that is salt water, so we need to work out how to make it drinkable,” he said.
With 70% of the world’s population living within 50km of the sea, desalination could provide the solution.
Modern Water, based in Guildford, Surrey, claims its technique differs from most desalination procedures. They rely on high pressure, needing huge amounts of electricity, to push salt water through an enormous filter. The company’s patented “manipulated osmosis” technology uses a chemical reaction to separate the salt from the water — a process that uses far less energy. “It reduces energy consumption by as much as 30%,” said McDougall.
The technology was pioneered by Adel Sharif, a professor at Surrey University. But it wasn’t until McDougall, who had founded and sold Mid Kent Water, sat in on a demonstration, that the idea took off. “It was the most exciting invention I had ever seen,” said McDougall. He bought the technology and set up Modern Water with backing from IP Group in 2006. A year later, it floated on the Alternative Investment Market and today has a value of £42m.
The company expects spending on desalination in the Middle East to increase by £13 billion by 2016. Last year, Modern Water made a loss of £3.6m but with £38 billion expected to be spent on desalination in the next 10 years, McDougall believes it won’t be long before the profits are flowing.