Are desalination plants the future of water?

Desalination plants, which remove the salt from seawater to make it safe for drinking, could become a much more common sight in the UK over the next few decades, as climate change and a growing population puts pressure on the country’s water supplies, according to the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). The UK opened its first municipal desalination plant opened in June 2010 in Beckton, East London, and is capable of supplying 150 million litres of potable water per day – that’s enough to supply 400,000 households. So, are desalination plants the future for the UK’s water?

Advances in Technology

The number of desalination plants around the world is expected to more than double by 2050, by which time there are expected to be another four municipal plants and as many as 800 smaller plants in the UK. Conventional thermal desalination, which involves evaporating water to remove the salt, is a costly and energy-intensive process. However, developments in desalination technology – including the use of membrane systems that use reverse osmosis to remove salt – have made the process more efficient, and it is expected to become cheaper and more eco-friendly over the next few decades.

“Some of the most exciting developments in desalination are with breakthrough technologies,” said Martin Currie, a member of IChemE’s Water Special Interest Group. “Researchers are currently working to scale-up biomimetic membrane processes employing aquaporin proteins – found in our kidneys – that let water through much more efficiently than conventional membranes.”

Future Impact

According to some estimates, the UK’s population could increase by almost a quarter to 77 million by 2050, which would make it the most populous country in Europe. Together with the rising threat of droughts and their effect on agriculture, this growth means new solutions will have to be found to deliver clean, safe drinking water in the future.

“Consequently, IChemE’s members will be publishing a white paper in 2014 which will assess all the options for a secure and safe water supply in the UK and internationally,” added IChemE director of policy and research Andy Furlong.


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