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Seawater Desalination (SWRO)
As you may remember from Module 1, the majority of Earth's accessible water (i.e. not including the large amount of water trapped in minerals in the Earth's interior!) is in the Oceans. In a sense, the Oceans would provide an unlimited supply of water, but of course they are too salty to drink or use for most purposes. To use seawater for industrial, agricultural, or domestic/municipal supply therefore requires separation of the water from the dissolved ions (mainly Na, Cl, Mg, SO4, Ca, and CO3). This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but most commonly is done via either:
- Distillation, in which the water is forced to evaporate and then collected, leaving behind a concentrated brine, or
- Reverse osmosis, in which the water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane under pressure; the membrane physically excludes dissolved ions and other compounds, and only allows H2O molecules to pass (Figures 1 and 2).
Of these, reverse osmosis (or seawater reverse osmosis, SWRO) has emerged as the more efficient approach, especially when scaled to produce the millions of gallons per day or more needed to meet the demands of even modest population centers.
Of course, removing the salt from seawater requires energy – and money. For that reason, it has been a subject of intense research and engineering efforts, in order to reduce costs through increased scale, improved efficiency, pre-filtration, and improved materials (most importantly, advances in membrane materials that require less pressure to push the water through but still exclude dissolved ions). Early desalination plants were restricted to a relatively small scale, and mainly in desert areas (e.g., the Middle East), or to meet water quality requirements for the CO river treaty of 1944 (e.g., the Yuma desalination plant in Yuma, AZ, brought online in 1997). However, with improving efficiency, increasing demand, and perhaps spurred by drought, desalination is now emerging as one potential viable solution, at least in areas with access to the ocean, and the economic resources to construct and operate the plants.
Source: James Grellier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Tampa Bay Water and appears on NOAA