As a place that developed the aflaj system to harness scarce water resources, Oman is the ideal place to develop the technology to meet the region's growing water demand, Ciarán Ó Cuinn, the centre's director said.
“Within Omani culture, there's an amazing tradition of innovation, to be able to take something as rare as that,” he said in an interview as MEDRC celebrated the World Water Day on March 22. “And that's why I think an institute like this works well in Oman because it has that deep respect and understanding for water.”
MEDRC was founded in 1996 to fund and perform research in desalinisation and train industry representatives. For Cuinn, the question is no longer how to generate water as for the Middle East, and especially the Gulf, desalination is the only option. The question is how to make it as economically feasible and least harmful for the environment.
This can be achieved by developing new technologies. Cuinn says the technology has already changed. Reverse osmosis (RO) is replacing distillation across the region. Whereas distillation used to rely on boiling saltwater to capture the remaining steam, RO separates salt by forcing high-pressure water through a membrane. RO is a lot less energy intensive than distillation, but still not the final solution, Cuinn said.
“Desalination still uses too much energy. The real focus is on decreasing the amount of energy used and increasing the amount of renewable energy. We need to find ways that we can do it more environmentally friendly.”
Cuinn talked about several pioneering technologies under development that can help improve RO. But there are also things that can be done about the energy used to power desalination. MEDRC's own RO plant is powered by solar panels. Other MEDRC work has focused on developing an early warning system to detect algae in the sea.
Algae, which cause red tides, can enter desalinisation pipes and therefore disrupt water supply. The HABs (harmful algal blooms) project has completed its study phase and is moving on to implementation, Cuinn said. This year, the centre is also hoping to create a network of desalinisation experts from around the world. As part of efforts to develop local talent, the centre intends to launch a prize in the coming years to award a young Omani water researcher.