Only 2.5% of all water on Earth is fresh water, of which less than 1% is accessible – yet this resource is essential for human life. Fresh water is essential for drinking water, agriculture, irrigation, industry and power generation.
In addition, 10% of the world’s animal species live exclusively in freshwater habitats, many of which are threatened with extinction.
It has never been so important to protect our freshwater environments.
There are two types of membrane process used for desalination: reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodialysis (ED). The latter is not generally used in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the RO process, water from a pressurized saline solution is separated from the dissolved salts by flowing through a water-permeable membrane. The permeate (the liquid flowing through the membrane) is encouraged to flow through the membrane by the pressure differential created between the pressurized feedwater and the product water, which is at near-atmospheric pressure. The remaining feedwater continues through the pressurized side of the reactor as brine. No heating or phase change takes place. The major energy requirement is for the initial pressurization of the feedwater. For brackish water desalination the operating pressures range from 250 to 400 psi, and for seawater desalination from 800 to 1 000 psi.
In practice, the feedwater is pumped into a closed container, against the membrane, to pressurize it. As the product water passes through the membrane, the remaining feedwater and brine solution becomes more and more concentrated. To reduce the concentration of dissolved salts remaining, a portion of this concentrated feedwater-brine solution is withdrawn from the container. Without this discharge, the concentration of dissolved salts in the feedwater would continue to increase, requiring ever-increasing energy inputs to overcome the naturally increased osmotic pressure.