Prototype of a mobile floating platform for seawater desalination using solar and wind energy provides 6 cubic meters of clean water per day

Egypt is currently facing a water shortage of around 13.5 billion cubic meters per year and it is even expected to increase in the future due to many factors. According to United Nations estimates, water shortage will double by 2025 to reach 26 billion cubic meters annually, which will have many serious repercussions on Egypt’s economy and development. Here comes the role of scientific research to find solutions to this aggravating challenge. Hence, the Newton-Mosharafa Fund aims to sustainable water resources management as one of its priorities to support scientific research and innovation in Egypt.

The £50 million Newton-Mosharafa Fund seeks to support scientific research in Egypt by establishing partnerships between Egyptian and UK research institutions. The fund provides the opportunity to build capacities and skills, enhance research collaboration between the two countries, and transfer innovation, knowledge and expertise.

Below are three inspiring stories of Egyptian male and female researchers seeking to address the exacerbating water shortage on several fronts. This is done through the use of renewable energy in desalinating seawater, using bacteria in wastewater treatment, and developing treatment and desalination systems to protect groundwater.

Seawater desalination using renewable energy

In Egypt, the per capita share of water is about 570 cubic meters per year, which puts Egypt on the list of countries that suffer from water scarcity. With the exacerbation of such challenge, the per capita share of water is expected to drop to less than 500 cubic meters per year, thus making Egypt suffer from severe water scarcity. Seawater desalination is one reliable solution to address such shortage, even though it requires huge amounts of energy that usually comes from fossil fuels which pollute the environment. Using clean renewable energy to desalinate seawater is what Mohamed Abdel Fattah, a researcher at the Desert Research Center in Egypt, seeks to achieve through a joint research project with the University of Strathclyde, UK.

The project aims to develop an unconventional seawater desalination platform. A floating platform that is also mobile and can easily be used in several places. In addition, such platform operates using both solar and wind energy to desalinate seawater through the reverse osmosis process. Thus, this platform can provide clean drinking water for coastal areas.

Abdel Fattah explains, 'We have already been able to create a prototype of a desalination platform using renewable solar and wind energy. This prototype provides 6 cubic meters of water per day, which is sufficient for about 1,200 people. We are currently designing a desalination plant with an estimated capacity of 10,000 cubic meters per day. Thus, clean drinking water can be provided to about 67,000 people.'

In addition to providing clean drinking water, this platform can address other problems. Most of the coastal areas in Egypt do not have enough land to set up desalination plants, in addition to the high cost of construction and operation. As it is floating and mobile, the platform represents a solution to the shortage of available land, while at the same time its reliance on renewable solar and wind energy reduces the operating costs. Thus, this seawater desalination platform becomes a unique solution that suits Egypt’s needs and conditions.

Wastewater treatment using bacteria

Used water or wastewater treatment is one of the measures adopted to address water shortage. Water is treated to make it clean - but still non-potable, and then reused for purposes other than drinking. Thus, the demand on the few available water resources of clean drinking water will be reduced to be directed to provide water to individuals. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop efficient and cost-effective water treatment technologies for reuse. Treating wastewater using bacteria is the solution that Ola Gomaa, Professor of Microbial Biotechnology at the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, is working on through a research partnership with the University of Westminster, UK.

This research project aims to use bacteria in wastewater treatment, by relying on microbial fuel cells technology. The bacteria are used to clean wastewater so that it can then be used again for agricultural purposes as irrigating crops or for industrial purposes such as cleaning and cooling. Thus, water resources will be better managed in order to address the worsening water shortage challenge facing Egypt.

Ola Gomaa explains, 'Our main goal is to treat wastewater for non-potable reuse. We have completed the design of a prototype based on microbial fuel cells to treat used water. This will help saving clean water for drinking purposes, and provide factory owners with an alternative solution to treat water using their traditional ways.'

The Newton-Mosharafa funded research project was not only limited to the scientific aspect, as it opened the doors for dialogue and cooperation between scientific research and industry. Gomaa highlights that the research team contacted textile factories in the Egyptian city of Mahalla Al-Kobra to discuss problems related to the treatment of wastewater from the textile industry. This helped the research team design a wastewater treatment reactor to suit the needs of the Egyptian textile industry.

Treatment and desalination systems to protect groundwater

Groundwater is one of the reliable water resources to address the growing water shortage. However, groundwater in Egypt is significantly deteriorating due to industrial pollutants, salinity and over-extraction. Therefore, groundwater protection is one of the priorities for improving water resources management in Egypt. Developing systems for treatment and desalination of groundwater for the purpose of preserving it is what Hossam El-Nazer, a professor at the Egyptian National Research Center, is working on through a research project in cooperation with the University of Birmingham, UK.

This Egyptian-British research partnership aims to protect groundwater resources from degradation using modern, low-cost techniques. This is achieved by developing a water treatment system that aims to remove highly toxic pollutants from groundwater using photocatalysts, in addition to developing a groundwater desalination system using reverse osmosis. By relying on these two treatment and desalination systems, large quantities of fresh water can be extracted from groundwater, thus protecting it and better managing its sources.

Hossam El-Nazer explains, 'The research team designed and developed a pilot plant for water treatment and desalination at the National Research Center. This pilot plant can produce about 5 cubic meters of water per day. We also chose Siwa Oasis - in the Egyptian Western Desert - as a study site to implement those solutions related to the protection of groundwater and to clarify its economic and environmental effects.'

A pilot water treatment and desalination plant at the National Research Center can produce about 5 cubic meters of clean water per day

In addition, the Newton-Mosharafa funded research project aims to maximize the benefit of its research outputs through cooperation with the Egyptian government represented by the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities and the Holding Company for Drinking Water and Wastewater. El-Nazer explains that this project may contribute to reducing the cost of fresh water production from 12 Egyptian pounds per cubic meter to only five Egyptian pounds. This in turn will contribute to the development of communities that depend on groundwater sources, which would bring benefits to the Egyptian economy.