x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Two areas of focus for Masdar water research

It is estimated that the amount of water used in Abu Dhabi is 24 times its natural recharge capacity.

Masdar Institute Center of Excellence for Water Technologies director Dr Nidal Hilal examining his ongoing desalination membrane technology experiment. Courtesy of Masdar Institute
Masdar Institute Center of Excellence for Water Technologies director Dr Nidal Hilal examining his ongoing desalination membrane technology experiment. Courtesy of Masdar Institute

It is estimated that the amount of water used in Abu Dhabi is 24 times its natural recharge capacity.

With that reality in mind, the Masdar Institute has made water one of its critical areas of research, involving 17 academics with expertise in water technology.

It has identified two areas of focus for water research - water technology, and hydrology and hydroclimatology, with an emphasis on understanding the physical, chemical and biological processes associated with the movement of water.

Water technology research looks at developing technologies that will help sustainably produce potable water, while hydrology and hydroclimatology research relates to modelling the life cycle of water in an environment, as well as conservation, control, and optimal management of water resources.

To help address the country's challenging water resource situation, Masdar Institute research is focused on managing existing natural water resources and understanding outflow and recharge for long term sustainability.

"Optimal water resources planning and management and hydro-climatic modelling are at the heart of the sustainability goals of the UAE," says Dr Taha Ouarda, professor of water and environmental engineering at the Masdar Institute.

"Water conservation and its efficient allocation can have significant impacts on development. The direct socioeconomic and environmental impacts of research activities in the field of hydroclimatic modelling are hence vital for the UAE.

"Water availability impacts daily life and the viability of a number of economic activities, especially in arid and semi-arid environments. Furthermore, climate change is profoundly altering the spatial and temporal patterns of water availability and needs to be taken into consideration.

"Adequate modelling and optimal management of water resources in the UAE can even help the country reach its energy goals by reducing the amount of desalinated water that the country needs to produce.

"This will lead to significant savings in energy consumption and substantial positive environmental impacts."

Dr Ouarda leads research projects involving both government and industry that aim to improve various aspects of the water management.

For example, one Masdar Institute project is developing forecasting tools and early warning systems to prepare for extreme weather events like flash floods.

Such tools are of interest to all agencies dealing with water resources (such as the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, and the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology) as well as agencies dealing with national security and public safety (such as the National Emergency and Crisis Management Authority).

"The primary aim of the research activities is to study the evolution of the hydro-climatic variables in the UAE to ensure the optimal planning and management of water resources in the country and contribute to the long term commitments of the UAE for sustainable growth," Dr Ouarda said.

Where proper management of natural water resources ends, sustainable production of clean water begins to meet the remaining supply gap.

The Masdar Institute has set up a Centre of Excellence for Water Technologies to research, develop and support deployment of clean water production technologies.

A huge proportion of the water used in the UAE has to be desalinated. According to EAD, 30 per cent of Abu Dhabi's total water supply is from desalination, including virtually all water for domestic consumption.

And it is hugely expensive; the UAE spends nearly Dh12bn a year on desalination.

Reducing that cost, improving the efficiency and mitigating the environmental impact of the desalination operations thus have great potential benefit for the UAE.

"I believe tapping into seawater is the only option available to address such world water shortages. Desalination of seawater increasingly proves to be the most practical way and in many parts of the world, it's the only solution, particularly in the GCC," said Dr Nidal Hilal, director the Centre of Excellence for Water Technologies.

The centre will engage in multidisciplinary and collaborative research of relevance to UAE in the areas of thermal desalination, membrane technology desalination, advanced water treatment technologies, and environmental issues related desalination technologies.

"The UAE currently relies on thermal desalination technologies for its major source of water," said Dr Hilal. "This is an energy intensive form of desalination. A thermal MSF plant requires 25 kilowatt hours per cubic metre, compared to a membrane plant, which requires 4.7 kilowatt hour per cubic metre or less.

"Add this to the fact that both energy and water in the UAE are produced from burning of fossil fuels, which have a carbon impact, and you can see the need for developing more energy efficient and cost effective ways of producing water."

The centre's research projects will not only look to improve the operational efficiency and systems of thermal and membrane desalination plants, but also to help develop the UAE's indigenous talent and intellectual property.

"The UAE is a significant market for water technologies but currently all the technology is imported. So too is most of the expertise to run and manage it.

"The research projects the centre undertakes will help change that by using the cutting edge of technology and the brightest brains in the region - students and faculty - to help provide localised solutions and expertise in desalination technologies."

With his efforts joining those of Dr Ouarda and others at Masdar Institute, the UAE's water security, sustainability, self-sufficiency and economic strength will surely grow.