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Theses Doctoral

Technical and Economic Modeling for Sustainable Desalination: Renewable-Powered, Adaptive Reverse Osmosis Desalination with Load Flexibility and Pathways to Zero Liquid Discharge

Atia, Adam Ahmed

Freshwater scarcity is a dire problem for exposed human societies and natural ecosystems—a problem expected to grow worse with anticipated climate change. Reverse osmosis (RO) desalination is currently the most energy-efficient and ubiquitous desalination process used for freshwater production in water-scarce regions. The synergy of high solar radiation and significantly reduced costs in photovoltaics (PV) creates the opportunity for PV to become a dominant and sustainable solution for powering the energy-intensive process of desalination and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.While photovoltaic-powered reverse osmosis (PVRO) is a promising technological solution, several significant challenges must be further addressed to sustain high RO performance.

First, the inherently intermittent nature of solar energy generation can adversely affect the freshwater conversion process and thereby decrease water recovery and quality. Furthermore, global desalination capacity is dominated by large-scale plants, whereas PVRO systems are currently limited to small-scale systems. Thus, to truly integrate renewable energy with desalination systems in an impactful way, there is a need to explore pathways for modifying the RO process to enable flexible operation on a large-scale, in response to power variability. Furthermore, the techno-economic feasibility of flexible, renewable-powered RO processes and the potential benefits that could be provided to variable renewable energy (VRE) plants and the electric grid warrants investigation.

Brine minimization is another major challenge for sustainable desalination. Brine management is especially an issue for inland desalination plants. Novel approaches that are less costly and less energy intensive are needed to facilitate minimal and zero liquid discharge. To enable high-salinity desalination, several variations of osmotically assisted RO, which each surpass the pressure limitation of conventional RO, have been proposed in the literature but require further assessment. The promise of these enhanced RO approaches entails a reduction in energy consumption when compared with thermal desalination methods.

The primary deliverables and novel contributions of this thesis include the development of (i) design, simulation, and cost optimization models for variable-powered, variable-salinity RO systems, (ii) module-scale, cost-optimization models for enhanced RO technologies that reduce transmembrane osmotic pressure to enable high-salinity desalination and brine minimization, (iii) examining the effects of cyclic reverse osmosis on inorganic scaling mitigation, and (iv) quantifying the availability of unconventional, alternative water sources to alleviate local water scarcity in the contiguous US.

First, the techno-economic feasibility of PV-powered RO desalination plants in the Gulf region was assessed using Hybrid Optimization Model for Electric Renewables (HOMER) and Desalination Economic Evaluation Program (DEEP) to model both the power system and desalination system, respectively. Subsequently, an hourly simulation model for desalination was developed to replace the use of DEEP in the workflow. Grid-connected and off-grid cases with combinations of PV, batteries, and diesel generators were evaluated primarily by the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) and levelized cost of water (LCOW). The shortcoming of conventional and PV-powered RO is that variable power compromises cumulative water production, which in turn increases water costs. Thus, we proposed the concept of active-salinity-control reverse osmosis (ASCRO) which enables control of the transmembrane osmotic pressure and water production in response to variable power.

The ASCRO system dynamically controls energy consumption by operating across a range of feed salinity, allowing it to shift over a wide range of pump feed flows and pressures. To accomplish this, ASCRO utilizes feedwater from both low- and high-salinity sources. Enabling a dynamic power consumption profile can enhance demand-response capabilities, compensating for stressors on the grid. Moreover, ASCRO can improve the integration of renewable energy (RE) by responding to power fluctuations without compromising permeate production. This system can include on-site RE and energy storage to power the ASCRO plant and provide services to the grid. We considered the following grid-connected scenarios: 1) ASCRO, 2) ASCRO and battery storage, 3) ASCRO and photovoltaics (PV), and 4) ASCRO, battery storage, and PV. The LCOW was minimized by providing load-shifting and regulation capacity services in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) market. We quantified that the ASCRO plant can ramp from minimum to maximum load within 84 seconds, which is adequate for participation in fast-timescale markets. The LCOW for these scenarios ranged from 49 – 59 cents/m³. We also present sensitivity analyses showing the effects of capital cost, CAISO market prices, and PV size on LCOW.

To investigate alternative pathways to minimal and zero liquid discharge, low-salt rejection reverse osmosis (LSRRO), cascading osmotically mediated reverse osmosis (COMRO), and osmotically assisted reverse osmosis (OARO) were comparatively assessed via module-scale, cost optimization models to gain an accurate perspective of the performance differences between each of these configurations. We quantified the optimal LCOW of each technology for the case of desalinating feedwater at 70 g/L at 75% recovery, which would result in a brine concentration near 250 g/L, a level that allows further treatment with crystallizers. For baseline scenarios, LCOW results for OARO, COMRO, and LSRRO were 5.14, 7.90, and 6.63 $/m³ of product water, respectively, while the corresponding specific energy consumption (SEC) values were 10.31, 12.77, and 28.90 kWh/m³. A sensitivity analysis is also presented.

Additionally, we sought to examine the possibility of whether adaptive RO operation could provide the added benefit of fouling mitigation. Using the Pitzer model, nucleation theory, and dissolution kinetics to guide a set of bench-scale fouling experiments, CaSO₄-NaCl solution, supersaturated with respect to gypsum, was fed through a membrane test cell to determine nucleation induction times, rates of flux decline, and scale reversal.

Lastly, a geospatial analysis was conducted to estimate volumes of water deficits and potential alternative water sources for the contiguous US. Namely, wastewater effluent, brackish groundwater, agricultural drainage water, and produced water were considered in this analysis as alternatives for alleviating water scarcity. We formulated a conservative estimate of groundwater availability based on environmental flow limits. Additionally, agricultural drainage volumes were estimated based on USGS water use data. Overall, the results showed that water deficits amounted to an equivalent daily capacity of 149 million m³/day—nearly 50% more than the desalination capacity of the world in 2020. Furthermore, the total availability of alternative water sources was estimated to be between 192 – 240 million m³/day, but most of this volume was not in the same location as deficits. Thus, 58 – 65% of national water deficits would have to be alleviated via long-range transport. Additionally, the potential for integrating desalination and water reuse by interconnecting existing RO plants with wastewater treatments plants was also assessed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Fthenakis, Vasilis M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2021