ASHKELON, Israel (Sep. 12)
An Israeli-led consortium is completing the world’s largest, most technologically advanced and economical water desalination plant, a project that backers say could influence prospects for Mideast peace and development of arid regions worldwide. The $250 million plant will produce 100 million cubic feet of water a year in two identical, adjacent facilities from water drawn from the Mediterranean Sea, sufficient to provide 5 percent of the water consumed in Israel.
One desalination unit here is complete, and a second unit is expected to be finished by the end of the year.
Lance Johnson, manager of large desalination projects at Dow Chemical Co. — which makes the membranes at the center of the process — said output will equal “500 million half-liter size bottles of water a day — a lot of water.”
Israeli officials have quietly begun talks with the Palestinian Authority about the possibility of increasing the plant’s production to 120 million cubic feet a year, with 20 million cubic feet to be shipped to Gaza, 5 miles away.
“After this plant is in operation, people will realize it’s much cheaper to build this kind of plant than fight for water in the Middle East,” said Gustavo Kronenberg, general manager of the VID Desalination Co. and the man in charge of the plant’s construction.
The project is being developed by VID, a joint venture made up of IDE Technologies and Elran Infrastructures, both of Israel, and Veolia Water of France. The Israeli government will take ownership of the facility after 25 years.
Aiman Jarrar, head of the Palestinian Water Authority’s regulatory directorate, said Gaza residents need affordable water.
“The Palestinians realize that one of the solutions of water shortage in Gaza strip is desalination,” Jarrar said in an e-mail.
However, some Israeli officials are worried that Palestinian dumping of sewage into the sea off Gaza could render the desalination plant useless, according to news reports.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat who was deeply involved in peace negotiations in the region for 12 years, said water-supply issues loom over the troubled region.
“There simply aren’t the water resources out there that there have to be,” he said.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel’s infrastructure minister, said the country has embarked on a five-year plan to develop desalination plants capable of creating 300 million cubic meters of water.
Israel uses 600 million cubic meters of water annually for human consumption and another 1.3 billion or so for agriculture and industry. The Ashkelon plant is coming on line just as Israel has begun to focus on developing its vast Negev desert region.
The bulk of the water produced in Ashkelon will be shipped to the Negev, and some will go to Jerusalem, Kronenberg said.
The plant will be the world’s largest facility producing water through reverse osmosis, a type of filtering process. Currently, only about 20 percent of worldwide desalination involves reverse osmosis, but membranes developed in recent years have made the process more economical. In fact, as the technology improved, the Israelis doubled the Ashkelon plant’s planned capacity.
In 1999, when planning for the project began, the estimated cost of producing water had fallen from $1 per cubic meter to 70 cents. Kronenberg said the Ashkelon plant will produce water at 53 cents per cubic meter, which he called “the lowest price ever seen for desalinated water.”
Three pipes extending more than a half-mile into the sea take in water about 45 feet below the surface, where it’s clearest. The incoming water is routed to two desalination units located just north of a huge, coal-fired power plant whose smokestacks loom over Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast.
Pulled by gravity, the seawater is filtered through layers of sand. Additives and cartridge filters remove suspended particles larger than 10 microns.
The seawater then is routed to a pumping chamber, where its pressure is elevated. Half of that water flows through special membranes and becomes potable. The remaining brine, under high pressure, is used to help boost the pressure of incoming seawater — helping to dramatically reduce the energy needed for the process.
The desalination plant contains 40,000 reverse-osmosis membranes, each costing about $500 and resembling long pipes that are stacked floor-to-ceiling in huge racks. Over the past 18 months, Dow researchers developed membranes that require less energy, Johnson said.
The water already is potable after the reverse osmosis but it goes through an additional step to lower the boron content, so that it won’t harm citrus trees if used for irrigation.
The water is stored in a covered reservoir and released to Mekorot, the Israeli water company.
Ultimately, the concentrated brine produced by the desalination is mixed with the cooling water exiting the nearby coal-fired power plant to minimize its environmental impact, and then it’s released back into the sea.
The cost of desalinating water at the Ashkelon plant will be about 30 percent less than at other desalination plants now in operation, Johnson said. The Israeli facility may even get more efficient as efforts to upgrade membrane technology continue.
“We are committed to this industry,” Johnson said.
“It’s really a tool that can be used on a much bigger scale,” Kronenberg said. “Ten to 15 years from now, all of the potable water of Israel and the neighboring area — Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority — can be supplied from desalination.”