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Water Scarcity – Innovating Solutions for the Future

85% of the world population lives on the driest half of the planet. As a result, access to clean water becomes an issue. A massive 2.16 billion of liters was consumed in 2013, with the demand for freshwater increasing by 64 billion cubic meters per year.  This, of course, is a natural progression as nations develop, utilizing natural resources more extensively, with fresh water right on top of that list.

Malaysia, a peninsular, should rarely face water issues. The announcement of water rationing, which lasted for two months, served as a reality check to the Malaysian public. According to statistics, Malaysia has one of the highest water consumption at 226 liters per person/day as compared to our neighbouring countries with Singapore at 154 liters per person/day and Thailand at 90 liters per person/day.

As another wave of El Nino approaches, the national water authority is preparing for a dry spell of up to 18 months. The hot spell might reinstate the need for water rationing again as the water levels in the Sungai Selangor Dam decreases. While there are challenges, it must be noted that there lies some clear paths to solutions; through risk identification and management, effective policy development, and technology implementation. GE is committed to being part of the solution.

Desalination, is a solution designed to curb water issues, by converting saltwater into fresh water. Ever changing climate situations, and an expanding population have put intense pressure on existing fresh water supplies, forcing communities to turn to desalinisation as a viable solution to this problem that might reach critical mass very quickly.

The technology however, is power hungry. Current desalination techniques are often energy intensive with energy consumption accounting for up to 70 per cent of the desalination costs. The global production of desalinated water uses approximately 75.2 terawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to power nearly 7 million homes. Due to its high cost and energy intensiveness, companies like GE are continuously looking for new and improved solutions.

Current desalination technologies fall largely into two categories: reverse osmosis and thermal distillation.

Reverse osmosis (RO) is when water is pushed at very high pressure through membrane filters that separate the salt from the water. There are a number of challenges with RO—the two most serious of which are the very high amount of energy required to push the water through, and the propensity of the membrane pores to become blocked.

Thermal distillation is a process that uses energy to evaporate water, thereby separating it from the salt, and then condensing it. This process is used widely where fossil fuels are inexpensive due to its high level of energy use. A number of other methods of desalination also exist and are similarly energy intensive.

Case in Point

GE has built desalination plants around the world in places such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Kenya, to name a few.

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Victoria Desalination Project. Photo Credit: SRS Comcell

In 2013, GE was instrumental in bringing Australia’s largest seawater desalination plant into operation. The Victorian Desalination Project, 130 km southeast of Melbourne, runs on low-and medium-voltage drives and medium-voltage motors supplied by GE.

Being amongst the largest reverse osmosis plants in the world, it was forecasted to supply 150 billion liters of drinking water per year to Melbourne and regional communities. This saw GE providing technology enabling a rainfall independent water supply to complement catchments and storages in the area around Melbourne.

A Platform for Innovation – GE and Saudi Aramco Global Innovation Challenge

Recently, GE teamed up with Saudi Aramco, a Saudi Arabian national petroleum and natural gas company, for the fifth installment of the global innovation challenge to find renewable energy solutions for seawater desalination. The open global technology challenge is to accelerate the development of solutions focused on improving the energy efficiency of seawater desalination.

The goal of this challenge is to identify novel ways to lower these costs around the world, either through technology advances, process improvements, or both. The US$200,000 challenge will be awarded to four winners with a prize of US$50,000 each, and further investments towards commercialization of the best ideas among all submissions will be considered.

The competition is open to small and large companies, academic researchers, research institutes, consultants, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and inventors.

GE constantly strives to provide innovative solutions for industries, and countries alike, with Malaysia being no exception. The Ecomagination challenge serves as an ideal platform for Malaysians to showcase their talents, contributing to the talent development cause of the nation.

To take part in the open innovation challenge, participants can start submitting their entries here. The deadline to submit the entries are until July 16, 2014 and winners will be announced in November 2014.

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