Masdar Institute is Making Sustainable Desalination Affordable for the UAE

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is leading research to advance and transform the critical technologies that provide the UAE with a significant portion of its freshwater to enhance water security, reduce the strain on the country’s limited natural freshwater, save money and preserve the environment.


Since 2005, economic development and urban growth in the UAE has resulted in a doubling of the population. Supplying this demand has been an ongoing challenge. The UAE’s arid climate, dry soils, scant rivers and dams and very limited precipitation mean that groundwater is the only natural freshwater source in the country, and that is in very limited supply. The UAE has relied upon foreign fossil fuel-powered desalination technologies to meet with the shortfall in natural freshwater supply for many decades, but in recent years has focused on developing its own technologies to provide desalinated water in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Masdar Institute has been a key contributor to a Masdar project that recently saw the inauguration of the UAE’s first renewable-energy powered desalination facility. The Ghantoot plant, which was inaugurated on November 23, hosts a Renewable Energy Powered Desalination Program to explore the feasibility of harvesting energy from the sun to provide Abu Dhabi’s potable water needs. Groundwater provides just over 50% of the UAE’s water supplies and desalination provides 37%, most of which is used for industrial and domestic consumption. The remaining 12% is reclaimed water, which is used for landscaping irrigation.

Under the Renewable Energy Powered Desalination Program, four pilot projects were commissioned by the Masdar company, which aims to have full-scale renewable energy powered desalination operational in Abu Dhabi by 2020. Each of these four projects have a small-scale test facility at the Ghantoot plant as part of the initial testing phase, which is currently being completed and will run until 2016.

Desalination is also one of the critical topics being discussed at the International Water Summit (IWS), taking place during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2016 at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC), on 15-23 January 2016.

Throughout the year, Masdar Institute researchers will be delivering advancements to existing desalination technology and introducing novel approaches for more sustainable and affordable new technologies in order to meet these goals. Their research aims to help the UAE overcome its water scarcity and security challenges, which was one of the seven priority sectors identified in the UAE’s National Innovation Strategy announced in late 2014.

Most of the UAE’s desalination plants are cogeneration plants, which utilize two techniques – multi-stage flash (MSF) and multiple-effect distillation (MED) – to turn seawater into freshwater. These cogeneration plants first produce electricity, and then the steam by-product is used to remove salt and other unwanted minerals and impurities from seawater, to produce freshwater.

However, these plants are energy intensive and emit large quantities of greenhouse gases – approximately one third of Abu Dhabi’s carbon footprint results from the production of water and electricity. In fact, the UAE’s reliance on such energy-intensive technologies is estimated to cost AED11 billion annually. Increasing water consumption and the impacts of global climate change have only intensified the UAE’s need for affordable and low-carbon desalination technologies to address these problems. 

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