Desalination, desalinization, or desalinisation refers to any of several processes that remove excess salt and other minerals from water. More generally, desalination may also refer to the removal of salts and minerals, as in soil desalination.
Water is desalinated in order to be converted to fresh water suitable for human consumption or irrigation. Sometimes the process produces table salt as a by-product. It is used on many seagoing ships and submarines. Most of the modern interest in desalination is focused on developing cost-effective ways of providing fresh water for human use in regions where the availability of fresh water is limited.
Large-scale desalination typically uses extremely large amounts of energy as well as specialized, expensive infrastructure, making it very costly compared to the use of fresh water from rivers or groundwater. The large energy reserves of many Middle Eastern countries, along with their relative water scarcity, have led to extensive construction of desalination in this region. By mid-2007, Middle Eastern desalination accounted for close to 75% of total world capacity.
The world’s largest desalination plant is the Jebel Ali Desalination Plant (Phase 2) in the United Arab Emirates. It is a dual-purpose facility that uses multi-stage flash distillation and is capable of producing 300 million cubic meters of water per year.
The largest desalination plant in the United States is the one at Tampa Bay, Florida, which began desalinating 25 million gallons (US Gal.) (95000 m3) of water per day in December 2007. The Tampa Bay plant runs at around 12% the output of the Jebel Ali Desalination Plants. A January 17, 2008, article in the Wall Street Journal states, “World-wide, 13,080 desalination plants produce more than 12 billion gallons of water a day, according to the International Desalination Association.”
As of July 2004, the leading method is Multi-stage flash distillation (85% of production world-wide). The traditional process used in these operations is vacuum distillation—essentially the boiling of water at less than atmospheric pressure and thus a much lower temperature than normal. This is because the boiling of a liquid occurs when the vapor pressure equals the ambient pressure and vapor pressure increases with temperature. Thus, because of the reduced temperature, energy is saved.
In the last decade, membrane processes have grown very fast, and most new facilities use reverse osmosis technology. Membrane processes use semi-permeable membranes and pressure to separate salts from water. Membrane systems typically use less energy than thermal distillation, which has led to a reduction in overall desalination costs over the past decade. Desalination remains energy intensive, however, and future costs will continue to depend on the price of both energy and desalination technology.