In an old Middle Eastern curse, enemies are told to drink from the sea. Cursed with water-shortage problems, Israel has pioneered desalination solutions that are changing the world. From manufacturing China's largest desalination plant and smaller ones on Caribbean islands, to watering its own agricultural industry, Israel's desalination business is a story that started at the founding of the state.
Today Israel's award-winning desalination companies are quenching the thirst of dry nations, and are challenged by today's environmental questions to provide greener options for tomorrow.
Desalination is a process that removes salts and minerals from otherwise undrinkable sea or saline water. With about 70 percent of the world covered in water, and more than 90% of it saltwater, even the water-rich United States finds itself in need of desalination solutions in California. And Israel is there to help.
The biblical Book of Exodus relates how the ancient Israelite leader Moses was empowered to turn bitter water sweet for drinking. Wind the tape forward to the 1950s, when Israel's technological progress in desalination was catalyzed by founding father David Ben-Gurion, who saw desalination as part of Israel's destiny.
Over the last few thousand years, nothing has changed: To survive and thrive, Israelis still need a source for fresh drinking water.
Israel's major foray into desalination began with IDE Technologies
- known as Israel Desalination Engineering when it was government-owned - which has built more than 400 desalination plants in some 40 countries, from Caribbean islands to the United States, to mammoth plants in China and Israel. The company is headquartered in Kadima.
Every day, IDE plants produce about two million cubic meters of potable water for the world to use, and its R&D staff is investigating and implementing greener solutions for an industry not known for its environmentalism.
Early experiments in Eilat
Israel's desalination story started with a "crazy" scientist and local legend, Prof. Alexander Zarchin, who headed a research group that proposed a process called vacuum freezing vapor compression (VFVC), which eventually was put into practice in the Israeli Red Sea city of Eilat. The idea was to force water into its three forms - vapor, solid and liquid - pull the salt-free ice out of the mixture and melt it.
Unfortunately, this very secretive project failed. The problem with VFVC, says IDE executive VP of special projects Fredi Lokiec, was that it required too much space and too specific maintenance temperatures to contain the vapor phase. Although the process was much less energy intensive than reverse osmosis (RO), now the most commonly used system for desalination, it wasn't feasible on a large scale.
Eventually Zarchin joined other innovators, such as Israeli-American Prof. Sydney Loeb, in pioneering the artificial membranes that form the basis of RO. Water is passed through this membrane to filter out minerals and other large molecules.
Israel's IDE pioneered reverse osmosis for desalinating water
"Prof. Sidney Loeb, a brilliant chemical engineer from California, came to Israel on a sabbatical after the Six-Day War and never left," Lokiec relates. "At Ben-Gurion University he was part of a small unit doing some research in the desert. He immigrated to Israel and got married. Together with IDE, he was working to build one of the first membrane facilities in Yotvata in the Arava Valley not far from Eilat."
Greening up desalination
In addition to the 40 foreign countries in which IDE is operating, the company built two of the world's largest desalination plants in Israel, one in Ashkelon in 2005 and the second in Hadera in 2010. IDE has a third in the works in Soreq, which will produce some 150 million cubic meters of water starting next year. Also under construction by IDE is China's largest desalination plant, which will use heat recovery to help fuel the process in a more "green" way.
Desalination requires enormous energy, and its byproducts include chemicals and brine, as well as greenhouse gases. IDE is committed to making the desalination process not only cheaper for its clients, but more environmentally sound as well, says Lokiec. "We do desalination the way nature does it, using evaporation and condensation with some form of external energy input," says Lokiec. "This input can include waste energy or solar energy."
In other innovations, IDE is replacing the use of pre-treatment desalination chemicals with a mechanical process called ProGreen. According to the company, this is the world's first green RO system for water desalination.
Normally the seawater intake is pretreated to change its chemistry before it is processed. Some of these chemicals may find their way into the brine waste product, which goes to the sea, and handlers of the chemicals may suffer side effects. ProGreen, easy to install as an upgrade to existing plants, eliminates these problems and also optimizes energy consumption.
The company is currently focusing on the smaller desalination plants as pilots and hopes to scale ProGreen up to larger desalination facilities.
Hadera desalination facility
Desalination alleviates world "water pressure"
Some estimates suggest that the demand for water-treatment products will rise 6.2 percent every year to $65 billion in the year 2015. Meeting the world's water needs requires local and international policy and legislation. Israel is deeply involved in implementing policy locally and sharing its processes with the world.
Looking locally, Israel's major sources of water are the Sea of Galilee, its holding tank and a number of inland and seaside aquifers. Those sources, now combined with desalinated water, supply a population that has expanded many times over from its former size in the last 80 years. As environmentalists rally to protect coastlines from development, the country is also seeking to establish the creation of artificial islands on which to build desalination plants.
Booky Oren, a former CEO of Israel's national water carrier Mekorot
, is now an independent water consultant and is chairman of Israel's WATEC conference and expo
, held in Tel Aviv from November 15-17, 2011. Oren says rising needs lead to little choice but to desalinate water, and similar situations are felt in the rest of the world as well.
"All the population here is increasing and the demand for water is increasing. This is the force that caused Israel to reinvent itself," he says. "In the beginning, 50 years ago, Israel began to deliver water from the north to the south from the national carrier. Then we moved to recycled water. We began to recycle the wastewater to create more water because we don't have enough. All the time there is a crisis because we are coping with continuous droughts. The water you have from natural collection is not enough," says Oren.
"While tools like drip irrigation help to alleviate the problem, at the end of the day this doesn't solve Israel's crisis. Israel took a strategic decision to produce more water from the sea," he continues, though this is expensive. "By 2015, Israel will be fully independent from rainfall and will produce enough water from the sea. Even coping with continuous droughts, we will have enough."
Israel had to formulate policy to assure that the price of desalinated water would remain relatively low, and this is where ingenuity had to factor in. Water in Israel was about $2 per cubic meter 20 years ago, and it now it is down to 50 cents-- a 75 percent reduction, says Oren. To achieve this cost benefit, Israel invented better ways to recycle water, and processes that were less energy intensive.
In addition to IDE, Israel's less famous players in desalination include Global Environmental Solutions
, which operates a plant at Palmachim
, and Nirosoft
. The Israeli government-owned Mekorot is also getting into the desalination business. "Mekorot is doing a lot," says Oren. Its plants in Eilat are rehabilitating brackish aquifers, which have become saline from over-pumping. The company has also had to manage the flow of Israel's water, whose north-to-south path was reversed through what Oren calls a major engineering feat.
Nadav Efrati from Desalitech says the company includes some of the world's thought leaders in desalination. "We are building complete plants according to our patented closed-circuit technology to greatly decrease energy consumption and increase the recovery of feed water, and we do this to reduce erosion and the negative effects of [using] membrane technology," he says.
The company, which claims its modular and scalable system can cut water production costs by more than 25%, can build its own plants or update existing ones. Two in Israel are each supplying water to 10,000 people. Desalitech is building a plant on the Dead Sea for consumers and industry, and is working on a pilot with General Electric to integrate GE technology into Rotec plants.
Rotec is building desalination facilities to remove salt from brackish groundwater. Its technology is based on research from Ben-Gurion University, where Israel's water story started with a nucleus of desalination water researchers. Among Rotec's activities are peace-building measures: It has a grant with NATO to create a "water bridge" between Israeli and Jordanian researchers in the form of two Rotec plants, one being built in Israel and the other in Jordan.