There is plenty of water on earth, but good drinking water is scarce. With the help of membrane technology and renewable energy, MemPower® turns seawater into drinking water while generating electricity at the same time. Former TNO group is looking for partners to further develop this promising innovation, which recently won an MBR Global Water Award, and to launch it onto the market.
Worldwide demand for clean water is considerable, as is the commercial potential of MemPower®. But there is more than just the commercial aspects - the lack of clean drinking water is one of the factors in numerous social problems. Poverty is one example, as are malnutrition and the worldwide increase in the number of refugees. The absence of clean water can even play a part in violent conflicts as well. These problems will not be instantly solved simply through the introduction of MemPower®. “However, we can help make substantial improvements to the production of basic necessities,” explains Khalil El Bakari, business developer. “It could even go as far as irrigating dry areas and desert regions in order to make them suitable for agriculture. If you do that in places that are not too far from the sea, it certainly opens up opportunities.”
Looking for partners
A green desert is an enticing prospect, but still a futuristic one. “But if we continue to develop MemPower® and upscale it, it can be achieved,” says senior scientist Norbert Kuipers. “That process of continued development is not a task for a non-profit organization like us alone. And that is why we are looking for commercial partners.” Before explaining that, Kuipers talks about the background of MemPower®. “It’s an extension of Memstill® - a innovation that selectively extracts water from seawater with the help of membrane technology and renewable energy, but which does not produce electricity. We are looking for partners for Memstill® too, but that is to market the technology on a large scale. Not many modifications are needed now, and various demonstrations have already been given.”
More efficient transport
Memstill®, El Bakari adds, is not just suitable for desalination of seawater: “You can also use it for processes in industries such as the energy and chemicals sector and the food and bio-based industry.” He refers by way of example to the concentration of liquid ingredients, such as fruit juices, or the reduction of waste flows. “That makes transport more efficient, because you don’t have to carry as much water.” But now there is MemPower®, which goes one step further than Memstill®. Kuipers continues, “We make sure that the flow of vapour that comes out of the membrane is slightly greater than the amount of drinking water that we drain. The drinking water is then pressurized and we use the difference in pressure to generate electricity, which can serve to drive the supply pumps for the equipment, for example.”
Sustainable production of electricity
This does not mean that MemPower® is capable of generating energy. El Bakari says, “The desalination of seawater will always be a process that uses up energy. With MemPower®, heat is needed, from solar panels or residual heat from industry for example. The fact that MemPower® is able to convert some of that heat into electricity in a sustainable way is a major advantage from the perspective of the energy transition. This makes MemPower® suitable for dry and isolated areas that receive a lot of sun and which have little or no electricity infrastructure.”
Mix of clean water and electricity
However, MemPower® can be used in other regions, too, as well as dry ones. “Water and energy form a nexus: a mutual dependency where one is needed to obtain the other,” says Kuipers. “In this case, it means that the ratio of the amount of drinking water and the amount of electricity produced by MemPower® can be adjusted according to the wishes of the user. The ratio may be different in dry and sunny areas than it is in the Netherlands. Other examples that come to mind are applications in places where drinking water currently has to be brought by ship or by air, such as islands or off-shore drilling platforms. Here too, the mix of clean water and electricity could be beneficial.”
Getting ready for the market
This is how things stand at present, but the employees are already looking ahead. Kuipers continues, “We are working on a project in which we are linking MemPower® to thermal solar panels and optimizing the installation process in order to improve even more the yield of water and electricity. As with Memstill®, we are looking for partners in the private sector.” At the same time, MemPower® has to be made ready for the market. “Demand for drinking water is enormous, especially in combination with the production of electricity,” says El Bakari. “This means there are opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors looking for a commercially attractive product that contributes towards the energy transition and to the resolution of a number of social problems, and also creates jobs. As far as Memstill® is concerned, we can start tomorrow, as it were. MemPower® can start producing results at demo scale after one year time.”
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