Research Firm Sees New Technologies for Desalination

I had the chance to hear an interesting discussion about new technologies for desalination at the recent WWEMA Washington Forum.

I had the chance to hear an interesting discussion about new technologies for desalination at the recent WWEMA Washington Forum. While reverse osmosis is still the “king of the hill” for desal systems that aren't located at power plants, there are a number of new and emerging technologies that could dethrone RO in the coming decades.

The global desalinated water supply will grow at a rate of about 9.5% over the next decade, reaching 54 billion cubic meters per year by 2020, or triple what it had been in 2008, according to a new report from Lux Research entitled “Desalination's Future Champions.”

According to the report, the demand for desalinated water will foster a rising wave of new water treatment technologies, all aiming to challenge reverse osmosis in desalination's three market segments -- seawater desalination, inland brackish water, and water recycling. RO dominated the desalination equipment market with a 54% revenue share as of 2008, and the relative success of its challengers will vary by market segment.

While RO is a mature technology, it's relatively high energy demands and lower recovery rates make it vulnerable. New systems will succeed based on their overall system efficiency and life-cycle costs in a given source water.

“The bottom line is that there are growth opportunities in brackish water and recycling,” said Michael LoCascio, a senior analyst at Lux Research and the report's lead author. “But RO is so entrenched that its variations will dominate for 20 years, with new technologies coming to market only through RO hybridization.”

According to the report, forward osmosis (FO) and RO variants will win in the seawater segment. Set to triple in size by 2020, the seawater segment could see simpler technologies, like cloud-point and ammonium carbonate FO, beat RO on energy and cost.

The brackish water segment will increase comparatively slowly from 6.4 billion m3/year in 2008 to 7.2 billion m3/year in 2020. Given brackish water's widely varying operating conditions, researchers saw nine possible “winning” technologies. The winners will be determined in part on the quality and constituents of the local water. Possible candidates include capacitive deionization, forward osmosis and hybrid RO systems such as HERO (High Efficiency Reverse Osmosis).

RO most likely will go unchallenged in recycling, the fastest growing segment of the market, projected to grow from less than 1 billion cubic meters per year to more than 8 billion by 2020. The recycling market's low energy needs and levels of brine waste minimize RO's weaknesses, securing its dominance in the segment for decades, LoCascio said.

“Of particular interest are firms that build, own, and/or operate desalination facilities,” said LoCascio. “Since they are technologically agnostic, these firms stand to benefit as the value of desalinated water continues to increase over the next 20 years, while the cost to produce it declines.”

“Desalination's Future Champions” is part of the Lux Water Intelligence service. It is only available to clients who subscribe to the company's service. The report offers a commercial analysis of emerging water treatment technologies and is designed to provide strategic insight to corporations, utilities, banks and early stage investors looking to tap growth opportunities enabled by emerging desalination technologies.

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James Laughlin,
Editor/Associate Publisher, WaterWorld magazine

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