The water industry today faces multiple challenges – from accelerated population growth, to exhaustion of our traditional water sources, and water scarcity driven by climate change and inefficient management of our available water resources. According to a recent United Nations report, almost half of the world’s population—some 3.6 billion people—currently live in areas vulnerable to water scarcity and nearly 2 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2025. In response to these challenges, the water supply planning paradigm in the next 10 to 15 years will evolve from reliance on traditional fresh water resources towards building an environmentally sustainable diversified water portfolio where low-cost, conventional water sources (e.g., rivers, lakes and dams) are balanced with more costly but also more reliable and sustainable water supply alternatives such as water reuse and desalination.

Nature teaches us that sustainable existence of closed systems such as our planet has to rely on efficient circular path of use of resources such as energy and water – so the key lesson learned from nature is that circular economy is the only path forward towards sustainable economic growth worldwide. Water leaders have the responsibility to transform water from one-time resource to a renewable precious commodity, and to incorporate this commodity into a robust circular economy.

Circular economy and rational, responsible, renewable and sustainable use of water resources are closely intertwined. Looking beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model, circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling of economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources and water reuse, the circular model builds economic, ecological, and social capital.

Experience to date has demonstrated that in order to incorporate seamlessly sustainable water management into circular economy we have to apply next-generation water management tools and water service models based on a combination of technological and non-technological solutions. In the next 15 years the water industry focus will be on closing the water loop and using alternative water resources, while decreasing energy consumption and closing material cycles where possible by extraction of energy and valuable compounds as much as possible. The tools of creating a sustainable one-water management and incorporating water management into circular economy by year 2030 are: digital water; water reuse; resource recovery and desalination. A number of disruptive technologies that are expected to accelerate the process of water utility transformation towards sustainability are presented below. These technologies are expected to result in exponential acceleration of the utility transition process towards sustainability by disrupting the status quo. In order for a technology to be disruptive it has to be: (1) unique and (2) significantly (at least 20%) more efficient than the existing technologies it replaces.


One of the key future trends of the water industry is in digitalization and the conversion of data into actionable insights. Digital water provides water management solutions that leverage the power of real-time data collection, cloud computing and big data analytics to minimize water losses in the distribution system and maximize operational efficiency, and asset utilization. The digital water management approach provides an integrated platform, which includes water production and supply asset management, water management software, intelligent controls, and professional expertize to drive down operating costs and water losses.

Digital water is transforming the way cities will use and manage water resources in the future. By 2025, about 80% of utilities in large cities of advanced countries and half of the utilities in large cities of developing countries are expected to have water supply systems incorporating Digital Water features such as advanced metering infrastructure.1

II.2.1  New and Emerging Technologies

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) Systems

AMI systems are computerized systems, which gather, process and analyze real time data of the water use in a given area serviced by the water utility. Water flow data from the customers and key points of the distribution system are collected on an hourly basis and are used not only for automated customer billing and fee collection but also for identifying locations which experience leakages and for quantifying and ultimately eliminating water losses expeditiously. Such systems have a key advantage that they can detect leaks before they burst and significant loss of water and disruption of water supply occur. These systems automatically generate work orders to address the identified operational challenges (leaks, malfunctioning equipment and instrumentation). With sensors becoming smaller and cheaper, utilities can deploy and link them into a smart water monitoring grid that requires minimal human intervention. Data analytics can help make sense of the vast amount of data from these sensors.

AMI systems are widely adopted by forward-looking utilities. For example, the Public Utility Board of Singapore (PUB) manages the entire water network as a system, including its design, operation and maintenance for 24/7 water delivery.2 PUB has developed a comprehensive smart water grid with three main objectives: asset management, promoting water conservation and providing good customer service. The grid uses more than 300 wireless sensors in the water mains to collect data on real- time pressure, flow, and water quality. Risk assessment and predictive software tools help identify the top 2% of high-risk pipelines for replacement annually. An online leak detection system monitors critical large mains for leaks, locates them to within 10-meter accuracy and alerts operators within 24 hours of the leak occurrence. Moreover, an automated meter reading system monitors and collects domestic water consumption data continuously, while home water management systems inform residents about their usage patterns and alert them to possible leaks and over-consumption. PUB also remotely monitors the water consumption of Singapore’s top 600 commercial and industrial customers, and plans to develop water efficiency benchmarks and good practice guidelines for different sectors. In addition, PUB is planning to deploy sensors for quicker and more accurate detection of contaminants, better data analytics to filter out false alerts, and batteries to match the smart meters’ 15-year lifespan.

Another example of AMI implementation is the Macao Water Supply Utility which has implemented an oversight system called Aquadvanced, which monitors consumption data collected from Macao’s water network and alerts customers and operators to abnormalities.3 The system is easy to navigate and facilitates follow-ups after an abnormal event. For example, numerous staff might trace the reason behind an unusually high flow rate, but their different clearance levels mean only certain users have the authority to confirm and/or close events. User profiles are divided in the system for greater management and organization.

In Malta, the Water Services Corporation (WSC) has recently installed an automated meter management system, using technology from SUEZ Smart Solutions, to improve its network performance.4 With the system, WSC can keep an eye on the water network, carry out more efficient and preemptive maintenance, warn customers early about possible leaks, improve its analysis of water consumption patterns, and reduce water theft. WSC also plans to develop reports and software to analyze data from smart meters.

Satellite Monitoring Systems of Water Distribution Systems and Catchments

An alternative trend to AMI systems emerging in recent years is the use of satellites in outer space to monitor leaks in water distribution systems and environmental health of river catchments. Two leading companies offering such technologies – Utilis and Satelytics – have developed software that analyzes satellite images to detect leaks in the distribution system and identify areas in the river catchment that experience environmental challenges.5,6 The satellite emits electromagnetic waves, which penetrate the earth and are reflected by electrically conductive media such as wet ground and create image that identifies locations where pipe leakage is identified. The satellite image is analyzed and web- based map is generated identifying the location of leaks.

Leaks as small as 0.1 L/min could be pinpointed by the satellite monitoring system and single image can cover area of 3,500 m2. Utilis offers such satellite monitoring service on a monthly and bi- annual basis and has already been adopted by utilities in the UK, Germany, Romania and South Africa. While at present, the use of satellite images for leak detection is relatively costly (US$160/mile per year), it is expected that in the next ten years, the price to task a satellite to collect specific information from outer space is expected to diminish significantly and to make this technology more affordable and easy to use. However, even at present the cost of this leak the savings from lost revenue due to water leaks can offset detection service.

The US-based company, Satelytics uses geospatial image analysis from satellites, nanosatellites, drones and planes to monitor water quality in watersheds. The company monitors the health of vegetation sites using bi-monthly satellite image analysis and identifies whether the vegetation has been damaged or negatively impacted as well as where are the potential “hot spots” of pollutants such as phosphorus or nitrogen that could trigger algal bloom and damage the ecosystem.

In Singapore, the national water agency – PUB – uses robotic swans to complement its online monitoring system for large-scale watershed management.The swans monitor different physical and biological parameters in Singapore’s freshwater reservoirs to provide real-time water quality information more quickly. This allows PUB to react to cases of outbreak or contamination more swiftly, compared to the previous time-consuming approach of using manpower to collect samples. To manage storm water, PUB also uses CCTVs and image analytics to monitor silt discharges at construction sites. It also correlates information from water-level sensors and flow meters to provide timely alerts and support drainage operation and planning needs.

II.2.2 Enabling Conditions for Digital Water

In order for digital water to become reality, the water utilities have to complete digitization of their water supply systems (pipe networks) and deploy sensors in the field to monitor the pressure, flow and water quality in key points of the water distribution system. The game changing technologies in the water sector in the next 10 to 15 years will be these that allow real-time water quality monitoring and predict and prevent water quality challenges before they occur. The future emphasis should be not as much on enhancing utilities ability to generate and process data collected online as much as on the implementation of analytical tools and software that swiftly identify leaks and other water losses and provide information needed for planned preventive and predictive maintenance.

At present, the main point at which the potable water quality is measured online and continuously monitored is the point at which this water leaves the drinking water plant. Deployment of such water quality monitoring technology in the distribution system and real-time tracking of changes in water quality for such key parameters as content of pathogens, disinfectants and corrosion indicators is expected to transform the digital water industry in the future.

One of the key challenges of embracing the word of digital water by utilities worldwide is the lack of standardization between various data collection, storage and monitoring digital platforms, equipment and instrumentation. Therefore, the water industry is working towards the development of international standard for hardware and software platforms that allow to seamlessly integrate data generated from sensors of a number of sensor providers. In order to achieve interoperable solutions, the water industry needs the creation of smart water platforms with hybrid architectures that enable integration of data, services and, billing and work order processing software as well as a catalogue of best practices for data management and use. At present the efforts on the standardization of various digital platforms available on the market place is in its infancy and it is likely that such standardization would take at least 10 years to complete. At this time, these is a big gap of the level of adoption of digital water in developed and developing countries, which is mainly limited by resources and availability of sophisticated workforce needed to operate and maintain the digital water platforms and associated field equipment and instrumentation.


Water Reuse is becoming a cornerstone of sustainable water management and urban planning and a key chain-link of circular economy. Advances in science and technology greatly contributed to the implementation of new more efficient and reliable wastewater treatment. Producing reclaimed water of a specified quality to fulfill multiple water use objectives is now a reality due to the progressive evolution of water reclamation technologies, regulations, and environmental and health risk protection. Today, technically proven water reclamation and purification technologies are producing pure water of almost any quality desired including purified water of quality equal to or higher than drinking water.

The critical analysis of the state-of- the-art of water reuse confirms that the beneficial use of recycled water is a global trend with sustainable growth worldwide. Technology is playing a critical role as an enabler of water reuse and diversification of water reuse practices. Growing concerns of water scarcity, climate change impacts and promotion of circular economy are becoming major drivers for the increasing use of recycled water for non-potable application (e.g., agricultural irrigation and cooling water for power production) as well as for indirect and direct potable reuse.

Water reuse practices can be classified into two main categories: non-potable and potable water reuse. The most important characteristics, key issues and lessons learned for alternative water reuse practices are summarized in Table 1. The most common applications of non-potable reuse of recycled water include: agricultural irrigation, landscape irrigation, industrial reuse and groundwater recharge.7

II.3.1 New and Emerging Technologies

Innovation will play a key role for the development of circular economy with water reuse. In the next 10 to 15 years, the technology innovation in water reuse would be focused on development of reliable “practical” solutions, in order to unlock the regulatory, economic and social barriers for building cost competitive water reuse market. The major focus will be on: (1) improvement of reliability, performance, flexibility and robustness of existing technologies,

(2)    development of new cost effective and energy efficient technologies, (3) new tools and methods for improved water quality and process performance monitoring and (4) advancement and implementation of “soft science” innovation to resolve the socio-economic challenges of water reuse.

II.3.2 Direct Potable Reuse

Potable reuse is production of drinking water from highly treated municipal wastewater. Potable reuse is practiced in two forms – indirect potable reuse, where the treated municipal wastewater is conveyed to a potable water aquifer, retained in this aquifer for 6 months and then recovered from the aquifer and used as drinking water. In direct potable reuse, the highly treated wastewater is released directly into the drinking water distribution system or it is conveyed to a reservoir used for production of drinking water.

Indirect potable reuse has been practiced worldwide for over two decades. Direct potable reuse, is expected to emerge as a main source of alternative water supply by year 2030. At present, a number of US states, such as California, Texas, Arizona and Florida as well as other countries such as Israel and Australia have developed or are under way of developing regulatory framework and advanced technologies which are expected to facilitate the industry-wide adoption of direct potable reuse as alternative source of drinking water supply.8

Direct potable reuse is becoming of age worldwide because most of the economically viable non-potable reuse opportunities have already been exploited in most countries worldwide. For example, the typical cost for parallel distribution of tertiary-treated recycled water is US$0.3 to 1.7/m3 whereas the typical cost for highly treated purified water, which could be delivered directly into the distribution system, is US$0.6 to 1.0/m3, which is comparable to the cost of seawater desalination.

As compared to conventional drinking water plants which use source water from reservoirs, lakes and rivers, treatment plants for direct and indirect potable reuse include at least two to three additional treatment processes which serve as barriers for pathogens and trace organics and allow to consistently achieve drinking water quality (Figure 1). Dual membrane treatment by low- pressure membranes (microfiltration or ultrafiltration) and reverse osmosis, followed by advanced oxidation (e.g. ultraviolet irradiation combined with hydrogen peroxide treatment of the water) is becoming very popular and is being considered as the best available technology worldwide. The management of brine generated from the reverse osmosis treatment of the purified is the main problem for such schemes, in particular in inland locations. For this reason, an increasing interest is reported in conventional advanced treatment trains for trace organics removal by combination of ozonation, biological activated carbon, ultrafiltration or nanofiltration and advanced oxidation instead of reverse osmosis separation.

II.3.3 New Advanced Oxidation Processes

A key challenge in adopting potable reuse as a mainstream source of drinking water supply is the removal of man-made micropollutants (e.g., pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, personal care products, nano-materials, perfluorinated substances) which are not easily and completely separated from the source wastewater by conventional WWTP technologies and membrane processes such as ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis. Removal of such micro-pollutants is typically achieved by advanced oxidation technologies, which combine alternative ozonation, peroxidation and UV irradiation processes (AOPs) for removal of such compounds.

Development of AOP process that has high reliability, performance, efficiency and cost-effectiveness along with simple and easy to use online monitoring of micropollutants and pathogens in the purified water are the two key obstacles to industry-wide acceptance and adoption of direct potable reuse.

The Centre for Water Research at the National University of Singapore (NUS) has developed an emerging advanced oxidation process called Electro-Fenton, which received the Most Disruptive Technology Award at the 2016 Singapore International Water Week.9 The team’s invention degrades a wide variety of contaminants, turning 99.9% of the pollutants in non-biodegradable wastewater into simpler and harmless substances such as carbon dioxide and water.

Unlike some wastewater treatment processes, it also produces virtually no sludge, has an easy plug-and-play set-up, and uses electricity instead of chemicals, making it more affordable and environmentally friendly.

II.3.4 UV-LED Systems

As indicated previously, UV irradiation is widely used in advanced oxidation systems, which a critical component of plants for indirect and direct potable reuse and is often used for disinfection of the effluent water from wastewater plants or drinking water facilities. Conventional UV systems typically utilize fluorescent lamps that contain mercury and are susceptible to breakage. The UV-LED systems are systems that contain light- emitting diodes (LEDs), which generate ultraviolet irradiation using significantly less energy than conventional UV installations.10 LEDs are powered by movement of electrons in semiconductors that are incorporated into the diodes. They are smaller and more robust than conventional UV lamps, and can be configured and used in a much wider variety of applications, such as AOC systems, and ballast water disinfection.

Another drawback for traditional UV systems is the inability to turn the system on and off without diminishing the life of the lamps, which require a warm-up period before achieving full UV radiation. UV-LED systems can be turned off to save energy, and turned back on for instant operation. At present the production of UV-LED systems is more costly than conventional UV installations. However, in the next 5 to 10 years, the technology is expected to evolve into very competitive and yield significant life cycle cost savings.

II.3.5 Automated Water Quality Monitoring Systems

A critical component of the advancement of potable water reuse is the development of online monitoring instruments and software platforms that allow to identify and control water quality in real-time and to adjust the water treatment processes in response to water quality variations. Recently introduced innovative technologies, which have advanced online water quality monitoring include:

Island Water Technologies –which has developed the world’s first real-time bio- electrode sensor for the direct monitoring of microbial activity in wastewater treatment systems.

Microbe Detectives – applies advanced DNA sequencing to identify and quantify nearly 100% of the microbes in a sample of water, and provides comprehensive microbial evaluations for water quality and disease management.

TECTA-PDS – has created the world’s first automated microbiological water quality monitoring system, which considerably lowers the cost of monitoring.

Enabling Conditions for Water Reuse

The key issues related to the implementation of water reuse, their ranking and some of the foreseeable impediments depend on specific local conditions. The major water reuse challenges are:

  • Economic viability,
  • Social acceptance: public perception and support by users and local authorities,
  • Policy and regulations,
  • Technical issues and energy efficiency,
  • Innovation and fast implementation of new tools, technologies and good practices.

Securing economic viability is an important challenge for majority of water reuse projects. Unfortunately, water reuse feasibility is often suppressed by the use of undervalued and/or subsidized conventional water resources. Full-cost recovery is a desirable objective but depends on ability to pay. The cost-benefit analysis of water reuse projects must include other management objectives and socio-environmental criteria, based on a holistic approach and catchment scale.

Similar to the development of any other utilities, the implementation of waste water reclamation facilities generally requires a substantial capital investment. While water reuse is a sustainable approach and can be cost-effective in the long run, the additional treatment and monitoring, as well as the construction of recycled water distribution systems could be costly as compared to water supply alternatives such as imported water or groundwater. In the context of circular water economy with sustainable water resources management of the region, government grants or subsidies may be required to implement water reuse. Unfortunately, institutional barriers, as well as varying agency/community priorities, can make it difficult to implement water reuse projects in some cases.

Independent of the type of reuse application and country, public’s knowledge and understanding of the safety and suitability of recycled water is a key factor for the success of any water reuse program. Consistent communication and easy to understand messages need to be developed for the public and politicians explaining the benefits of water reuse for the long term water security and sustainable urban water cycle management.

To date, the major emphasis of water reuse has been on non-potable applications such as agricultural and landscape irrigation, industrial cooling, and on residential or commercial building applications such as toilet flushing in large buildings. From these applications gray water reuse in residential and commercial buildings has not shown high promise and worldwide acceptance because of its high costs, odor emissions and complexity of the recycling and storage of gray water.

Potable reuse raises however, has been most difficult to implement worldwide, because of public concerns and the need for elaborate regulatory framework that allows to cost-effectively protect public health. The development and enforcement of water reuse standards is an essential step for the social acceptance of water recycling. However, in some cases, regulations could be a challenge and burden for water reuse, as for example in the case of very stringent requirements based on the precautionary principle. Water reuse standards must be adapted to the country’s specific conditions (administrative infrastructure, economy, climate, etc.), should be economically viable and should be coordinated with country’s water conservation strategy.

The technical challenges facing water reuse are not yet completely resolved. In particular, for industrial, urban and potable water reuse applications it is extremely important to improve performance, efficiency, reliability and cost-effectiveness of treatment technologies. Water recycling facilities are facing tremendous challenges of high variation of raw water quality, salinity spikes due to seawater or brackish water intrusion into sewers, as well as variation in water quantity caused by extreme conditions of very limited water demand, flooding or need for alternative disposal of recycled water.

In this context, the technology advances and innovation in the next 10 to 15 years will enable the development of reliable practical solutions, that would allow to unlock the regulatory, economic and social barriers for building cost competitive worldwide water reuse market. Key directions for innovation in water reuse technology in the next 10 years include:

  1. Improvement of performance, reliability, energy efficiency and robustness of existing wastewater treatment and water reclamation processes.
  2. Development of new more efficient treatment technologies with improved performance, lower carbon footprint and competitive costs. Specific focus is needed for the scale-up of new technologies.
  3. Development of innovative, efficient, robust and low cost tertiary treatment (filtration and disinfection) for water reuse allowing seasonal operation for irrigation and other uses with intermittent water demand.
  4. New tools and methods for monitoring of chemical and microbial pollutants and development of on-line (real-time) monitoring of water quality and process performance. A specific challenge is the monitoring of pathogens in raw wastewater and complex matrixes (sludge and soil), as well as new pollutants (nanoparticles, micro-plastics, antibiotic resistance).
  5. Develop of robust database that allows for a better understanding of pathogen removal efficiencies and the variability of performance in various unit processes of multi-barrier wastewater reclamation trains.


Resource recovery entails extraction of energy, valuable nutrients, minerals and rear earth elements from influent wastewater and sludge (biosolids) of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and from concentrate (brine) generated by desalination plants. Resource recovery from wastewater and brine is a critical component of the circular economy. A recent trend is changing the view of water industry on wastewater treatment plants from facilities that process liquid waste to protect the environment into water resource recovery plants, which turn energy and organics contained in wastewater into valuable resources such as energy, fertilizers and purified water.

Energy efficiency, carbon and environmental footprint mitigation of WWTPs are expected to gain pivotal importance over the next 15 years. The ambitious goals of sustainable development and of achieving zero net carbon and pollution emission footprint of WWTP by year 2030 call for a new holistic approach to the management of the water cycle with increased role for water reuse.7 With the further growth of megacities and increasing efforts to optimize energy efficiency, water recycling is of growing interest and will take a leading role in the future of circular economy.

Technologies for energy self-sufficiency aim to recover energy contained in the influent wastewater of WWTPs and to use this energy for wastewater treatment and solids handling. In the next 10 to 15 years it is expected that a new wave of technologies will be developed, which have the potential to make the WWTPs energy self-sufficient, producing as much energy as they use. At present, most WWTPs deploy technologies that can recover energy from wastewater sludge that cover only 20 to 25% of the plant total power demand. New technologies expected to be developed by year 2020 would increase self-sufficiency to 75%, and further energy recovery and reuse technology development is projected to be able to make WWTPs 100% energy self- sufficient by year 2030.7

Energy self-sufficiency and sludge management are inextricably linked. The near-term goal of 75% self-sufficiency would be possible to achieve by the development of advanced technologies for harnessing the biogas generation potential of sludge. The target WWTP 100% energy self-sufficiency by year 2030 is projected to be achieved by using technologies that dramatically reduce energy use for biological wastewater treatment such as nano-size air bubble aeration systems, applying anaerobic treatment processes such as Anammox, as well as using solar and heat power generation systems installed at the WWTP site.

II.4.1 New and Emerging Technologies

Over the next 10 to 15 years, the wastewater management innovations will focus on advanced membrane- based treatment technologies, anaerobic digestion of sludge, energy reduction for wastewater treatment, and new membranes from biomaterials. Aerobic granulation, for instance, is touted as the future standard for industrial and municipal wastewater treatment due to its energy-effectiveness and cost- efficiency. It has also been noted that plate and frame membrane bioreactor (MBR) systems with higher permeability, less biofouling and outstanding chemicals and temperature resistance will become mainstream wastewater treatment and resource recovery technology by year 2030.11

II.4.2 Phosphorus Recovery from WWTP sludge

Sludge generated from the WWTP processes contains valuable nutrient – phosphorus, which could be recovered and organo-mineral fertilizer. A number of wastewater treatment plants in Europe at present are planning or already applying phosphorous recovery installations, which incorporate technologies such as crystallization reactors that precipitate the phosphorus contained in the liquid sludge as a phosphorous mineral compound – struvite, or in the sludge ash, if the sludge is dewatered and incinerated. In addition of recovery of valuable nutrient, the removal of phosphorus from the sludge in the form of struvite reduces operational costs because it significantly reduces the scaling problems caused by struvite on the downstream piping and equipment processing sludge by anaerobic digestion. Germany has taken a leading position in this initiative and a number of other countries in central and northern Europe are expected to follow suit in the next five years.

II.4.3 Enabling Conditions for Resource Recovery

Recently adopted regulations in Germany, Switzerland and Austria mandate phosphorus recovery from wastewater sludge, thereby promoting the recovery of this valuable resource. These regulations are essentially phasing out land application of nearly all use of sludge from WWTPs and mandating phosphorus recovery from this sludge by 2029 for plants over 100,000 people equivalents (p.e.) and by year 2032 for plants serving over 50,000 p.e..

While technologies for extraction of valuable nutrients such as phosphorus already exist, the regulations allowing the use of the recovered nutrients as fertilizers are still under development or non-existent. The European Union (EU) currently is developing revised Fertilizer regulations, which are expected to shorten and simplify the path of the use of products, made from secondary raw materials such as organic and organo-mineral fertilizers, composts and digestates. These regulations are expected to be promulgated by the end of 2018. Two to three more years will be needed before the regulations apply and these products are EU certified for safe use.

New technologies are aimed at reducing energy consumption (by 20 to 35%), reducing capital costs (by 20 to 30%).

Anammox Anaerobic Wastewater Treatment

Anammox stands for Anaerobic Ammonium Oxidation. The process was discovered in the early nineties and has great potential for the removal of ammonia nitrogen in wastewater. The responsible bacteria transform ammonium (NH +) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) into nitrogen gas (N2) and water (H2O). This saves costs as less energy for aeration and no organic carbon sources (e.g. methanol or recirculated sludge) are required. During the last 20 years, many research projects were conducted on the Anammox process. In 2007, the first large-scale Anammox reactor was built in Rotterdam. It displays the vast possibilities of this new process. It is expected that this game-changing disruptive technology will become a mainstream wastewater process in majority of WWTPs by year 2030.


Over the past decade seawater desalination has experienced an accelerated growth driven by advances in membrane technology and material science. Recent technological advancements such as pressure- exchanger based energy recovery systems, higher efficiency reverse osmosis (RO) membrane elements, nanostructured RO membranes, innovative membrane vessel configurations, and high-recovery RO systems, are projected to further decrease the energy needed for seawater desalination and be a backbone for disruptive decease in the cost of fresh water produced by desalination of saline sources (seawater, brackish water and treated wastewater).

The steady trend of reduction of desalinated water production energy and costs coupled with increasing costs of conventional water treatment and water reuse driven by more stringent regulatory requirements, are expected to accelerate the current trend of reliance on the ocean as an attractive and competitive water source. This trend is forecasted to continue in the future and to further establish ocean water desalination as a reliable drought-proof alternative for majority of the coastal communities worldwide in the next 15 years. While at present, desalination provides approximately 10% of the municipal water supply of the urban coastal centers worldwide, by year 2030 this percentage is expected to reach 25%.12

II.5.1 New and Emerging Technologies

Near and long-term desalination technology advances are projected to yield significant decrease in costs of production of desalinated water by year 2030. In desalination, innovative technologies have been addressing longstanding issues that have hampered the development of this alternative resource. New technologies are aimed at reducing energy consumption (by 20 to 35%), reducing capital costs (by 20 to 30%), improving process reliability and flexibility, and greatly reducing the volume of the concentrate (brine) discharge. Some of the technologies with high cost-reduction potential are equally suitable for desalination and advanced wastewater treatment for reuse are discussed below.

Nano-structured Membranes

A recent trend in the quest for lowering the energy use and fresh water production costs for desalination is the development of nanostructured (NST) RO membranes, which provide more efficient water transport as compared to existing conventional thin-film membrane elements.13

The salt separation membranes commonly used in RO desalination membrane elements today are dense semi-permeable polymer films of random structure (matrix), which do not have pores. Water molecules are transported through these membrane films by diffusion and travel on a multi- dimensional curvilinear path within the randomly structured polymer film matrix. This transport is relatively inefficient in terms of membrane film volume/surface area and substantial energy is needed to move water molecules through the RO membranes. A porous membrane structure, which facilitates water transport would improve membrane productivity.

NST membranes are RO membranes which contain either individual straight- line nanometer-size channels (tubes/ particles) embedded into the random thin-film polymer matrix, or are entirely made of clustered nano-size channels (nanotubes). NST membrane technology has evolved rapidly over the past 10 years and recently developed nanostructured membranes either incorporate inorganic nanoparticles within the traditional membrane polymeric film or are made of highly-structured porous film which consists of densely packed array of nanotubes. These nanostructured membranes reportedly have much higher specific permeability than conventional RO membranes at practically the same high salt rejection. In addition, nanostructured membranes have comparable or lower fouling rate than conventional thin-film composite RO membranes operating at the same conditions, and they can be designed for enhanced rejection selectivity of specific ions.

For example, a US membrane supplier NanoH2O, recently acquired by LNG, has developed thin-film nano-composite (TFN) membranes, which incorporate zeolite nanoparticles (100 nanometers in diameter) into a traditional polyamide thin membrane film. These new TFN membranes have been commercially available for seawater applications since September 2010. The new membrane elements have 10 to 20% higher productivity than other currently available RO membranes or to operate at approximately 10% to 15% lower energy use while achieving the same productivity as standard RO elements.14

Over the last 5 years, researchers worldwide have focused on the development of RO membranes made of vertically aligned densely packed array of carbon nanotubes (CNT) which have the potential to enhance membrane productivity up to 20 times as compared to the state-of-the- art desalination membrane elements available on the market at present. While CNT based desalination membranes are not commercially available as of yet, it is very likely that such membranes will be released for full-scale application by year 2030. Recently, grapheme has been focus on significant research efforts because compared to nanotubes and carbon fiber it has a higher aspect ratio and surface area, which infers higher permeability and salt rejection, and lower fouling propensity.

Nano-structured membranes hold the greatest potential to cause a quantum leap in desalination cost reduction because theoretically, they can produce an order of magnitude more fresh water from the same membrane surface area, than the state-of-the-art RO membranes commercially available on the market at present. Such dramatic decrease in the membrane surface area needed to produce the same volume of desalinated water could reduce the physical size and construction costs of membrane desalination plants over two times and bring this cost of production of desalinated water production to the level of that of conventional water treatment technologies.

A potential challenge with higher productivity membrane elements is that their efficiency and productivity due to fouling of the membrane surface because the rate of fouling will increase proportionally to the rate of membrane fresh water productivity (membrane permeate flux). Therefore, the development of higher productivity membranes would likely require the modification of the membrane structure, geometry and the configuration of the entire RO system to combat the accelerated fouling and scaling processes that accompany the use of membrane of fluxes that are significantly higher than these of RO systems with conventional membrane elements. A step forward in this direction is the use of close-circuit desalination systems which allow to lower the membrane fouling rate by the slow increase in RO system recovery rate via concentrate recirculation loop.

Forward Osmosis (FO)

In forward (direct) osmosis a solution with osmotic pressure higher than that of the high-salinity source water (“draw solution”) is used to separate fresh water from the source water through a membrane. Forward osmosis process holds the potential to reduce energy use for salt separation. A number of research teams in the US and abroad are working on the development of commercially viable FO systems. These systems mainly differ in chemical composition of the draw solution and the method of recovery of the draw solution from the desalinated water.

Existing conventional thin-film composite RO membranes are not suitable for FO applications mainly due to their structure, which leads to low productivity. Development of high-productivity low-cost FO membrane elements of standard size is one of the current greatest challenges and most important constraints in creating commercially- viable FO systems that could ultimately replace exiting RO systems while reusing most of the existing RO system equipment. Most of the existing full-scale installations applying forward osmosis have been used mainly for industrial reuse. The use of this technology for drinking water applications is under development but from a total energy use point of view may not provide a significant competitive advantage to RO because of the high energy demand needed to separate the draw solution from the FO permeate to an extent where this permeate can meet potable water quality requirements.

Several companies such as Modern Water, Hydration Technology Innovation, and Trevi Systems have developed commercially available FO membrane desalination technologies, which to date have only found application for treatment of waste waters from oil and gas industry and high salinity brines. The Trevi systems FO technology is of potential interest because it uses draw solution that can be reused applying solar power – it is the main innovative technology considered for the ongoing solar power driven desalination research led by Masdar in the United Arab Emirates.

The main potential benefit of the development of commercially viable FO technologies for production of desalinated water is the reduction of the overall energy needed for fresh water production by 20 to 35%, which energy savings could be harvested if the draw solution does not need to be recovered and the salinity of the source water is relatively high. Such energy reduction could yield cost of water reduction of 20 to 25% by year 2030, especially for non- drinking water production applications.15

Membrane Distillation (MD)

In membrane distillation water vapor is transported between “hot” saline stream and “cool” fresh water stream separated by a hydrophobic membrane. The transport of water vapor through the membrane relies on a small temperature difference between the two streams. There are several key alternative MD processes, including air-gap, vacuum and sweeping gas membrane distillation.

The sweeping-gas MD has been found to be more viable than the other alternatives. A sweeping-gas is used to flush the water vapor from the permeate side of the membrane, thereby maintaining the vapor pressure gradient needed for continuous water vapor transfer. Since liquid does not permeate the hydrophobic membrane, dissolved ions/non-volatile compounds are completely rejected by the membrane.

The separation process takes place at normal pressure and could allow achieving approximately two times higher recovery than seawater desalination (80% vs. 45 to 50%). It is also suitable for further concentration of RO brine from (i.e., concentrate minimization). Membranes used in MD systems are different from the conventional RO membranes – they are hydrophobic polymers with micrometer- size pores. However, flux and salt rejection of these membranes are usually comparable to these of brackish water RO membranes.16

Currently, MD enjoys a fairly high academic interest because of its very high recovery (as compared to RO) and lower energy use (as compared to conventional thermal evaporation technologies). The viability of this technology hinges upon the development of contactor geometry that provides extremely low-pressure drop and on the creation of membranes, which have high temperature limits. Because of its current limitations, membrane distillation holds promise mainly for concentrate minimization and for fairly small size applications. However, this technology has potential to be scaled up and become a mainstream process widely used for desalination, industrial water reuse and brine management by year 2030.

At present, MD systems are commercially available from Memsys, which have focused the advancement of this technology application mainly for treatment of produced water waste streams from oil and gas industry. Other companies, such as Memstill, Keppel Seghers, and XZERO MD have recently commercialized MD systems mainly for industrial wastewater treatment and reuse applications. The main cost savings that can result from the application of this technology for large-scale desalination plants is lowering the cost of fresh water production from highly saline seawaters such as these of the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea and the costs for concentrate management and disposal for brackish desalination plants and RO systems used for potable reuse by 15 to 20%. Commercialization and industry-wide adoption of such systems is highly likely to transform the water industry by year 2030.

Electrochemical Desalination

Developed by Evoqua (formerly Siemens) under a Challenge Grant from the Government of Singapore, this continuous electrochemical desalination process is based on combination of ultrafiltration pretreatment, electrodialysis (ED) and continuous electrodeionization (CEDI) and is claimed to desalinate seawater to drinking water quality at only 1.5 kWh per cubic meter. This energy consumption is lower than the energy use of conventional SWRO desalination systems.

The electrochemical desalination has two key advantages as compared to RO desalination (1) it does not require high pressure for desalination and therefore the equipment and materials used for the process are mechanically and structurally less demanding and therefore, less costly; (2) the ED process is more efficient by its nature, because it separates and moves a much smaller mass of material (ions of salts) through low pressure membranes as compared to RO membrane separation where much larger number of water molecules are moved through thicker and more robust and complex high pressure membranes. Although thermodynamically the theoretical amount of minimum energy needed for separation is the same, the auxiliary energy use inherently is lower when a process moving smaller mass of matter is used.

This process is currently under full- scale development and has been able to achieve energy consumption of 1.8 kWh/m3 when desalinating seawater of salinity of 32,000 mg/L at 30% recovery. The process operates at low pressure (2.8 to 3.4 bars), the equipment can be produced from plastic, and the membranes used for ED and CEDI are chlorine resistant. The potential reduction of desalinated water costs this technology can yield is 15 to 20% by year 2030.17

Capacitive Deionization (CDI)

This technology uses ion transport from saline water to electrodes of high ion retention capacity, which transport is driven by a small voltage gradient. The saline water is passed through an unrestricted capacitor type CDI modules consisting of numerous pairs of high- surface area electrodes. Anions and cations contained in saline source water are electrosorbed by the electric field upon polarization of each electrode pair by a direct current (DC) power source. Once the maximum ion retention capacity of the electrodes is reached, the de-ionized water is removed and the salt ions are released from the electrodes by polarity reversal.

The main component, which determines the viability of the CDI, is the ion retention electrodes. Based on research to date, carbon aerogel electrodes have shown to be suitable for low salinity applications. This technology holds promise mainly for RO permeate polishing and for low- salinity brackish water applications. The fresh water system recovery for such applications is over 80%.

With recent development of new generation of highly efficient lower-cost carbon aerogel electrodes, CDI may out- compete the use of ion exchange and RO forgenerationofhighpuritywater. Several commercially available CDI systems are available on the market (Enpar, Aqua EWP, Voltea). However, these systems have found applications mainly for small brackish water desalination plants and mainly industrial applications due to the limited specific ion adsorption of current carbon materials.18

The technology holds promise because it could theoretically reduce the physical size and capital costs of desalination plants with over 30%. Current carbon electrode technology however limits salt removal to only 70 to 80%, uses approximately two times more energy than conventional RO systems and is subject to high electrode cleaning costs due to organic fouling. New electrode materials as grapheme and carbon nanotubes may potentially offer solution to the current technology challenges and are very likely to become readily available by year 2030.

Biomimetic Membranes

Development of membranes with structure and function similar to these of the membranes of living organisms (i.e., diatoms) may offer the ultimate breakthrough for low-energy desalination (specific energy use below 2.0 kWh/1,000 gallons). In these membranes water molecules are transferred through the membranes through a series of low- energy enzymatic reactions instead of by osmotic pressure. The permeability (e.g., the volume of fresh water produced by unit surface area) of such membranes could theoretically be 5 to 1000 times higher than that of currently available RO membranes.19

Aquaporins are example of such membrane structures. They are proteins embedded in the cell membrane of many plant and animal tissues and their primary function is to regulate the flow of water and serve as “the plumbing system for cells”. While osmotic pressure driven exchange of water between the living cells and their surroundings are often the key mechanism for water transport, aquaporins provide an alternative mechanism of such transport.

Aquaporins selectively conduct water molecules in and out of the cell, while preventing the passage of ions and other solutes. Also known as water channels, aquaporins are integral membrane pore proteins. Some of them transport also other small, uncharged solutes, such as glycerol, CO2, ammonia and urea across the membrane, depending on the size of the pore. However, the water pores are completely impermeable to charged species, such as protons.

One key advantage of aquaporin- based membranes, which is not found in conventional RO membranes, is that they combine both the ability to have high permeability and to exhibit high salt rejection at the same time. Conventional RO elements have inverse relationship between permeability and salt rejection. The smaller the molecular pores of the higher the salt rejection of the RO membranes but the lower the membrane permeability and vice versa. So practically, it is not possible to create a RO membrane that has high salt rejection and high productivity at the same time.

Currently researchers at the US, Singapore and Australia are focusing on advanced research in the field of biomimetic membranes and in July 2018, the company Aquaporin introduced the first commercial FO membrane with embedded aquaporins. These aquaporins are installed into spherical artificial vesicles referred to as polymersomes, which are incorporated on the surface of the conventional membranes. Such aquaporin-enhanced membranes are expected to operate at low feed pressures (5 to 15 bars) and to yield significant energy savings and enhanced fresh water production.

Although this research field is projected to ultimately yield high-reward benefits (e.g., overall desalinated water cost and energy use reduction with over two times), currently it is in early stages of development – further research is focused on the formation and production of aquaporin structures, which are incorporated into robust and durable commercial membranes – such products are expected to be commercialized by year 2030.20

Joint Desalination and Water Reuse

A new trend towards adopting the One- Water concept is the development of technologies for joint desalination and water reuse, where the desalination plant and the potable reuse plant are combined into One-Water Plant producing drinking water at disruptively (25 to 35%) lower cost as compared to seawater desalination alone. The One-Water technologies, such as that presented in Figure 2 present an opportunity for reduction of the energy and cost needed for desalination by feeding highly treated secondary effluent or RO reject from wastewater treatment plant into the feed water of SWRO desalination plant. Because the discharge from advanced water reclamation plants has an order of magnitude lower salinity than the source seawater, the SWRO system’s feed water salinity and energy cost for desalination could be reduced by 20% or more. Such treatment process is referenced as joint desalination and water reuse or One- Water process. An example of such joint desalination and water reuse facility is the Hitachi’s Remix system, which has been extensively tested at the 40,000 m3/day Water Plaza Advanced Treatment Plant in Japan.21

At present, joint desalination and reuse is in its infancy and its practical implementation to date has been exclusively for industrial water supply. The use of joint desalination and water reuse systems for production of drinking water requires further development as well as promulgation of regulations for direct potable reuse.

However, as direct potable reuse matures and gains worldwide acceptance in the next 10 years, joint desalination and water reuse facilities are likely to become a mainstream trend and attractive low- energy alternative for production of desalinated water. The benefits and potential challenges of joint desalination and reuse plants in terms of efficiency, reliability, costs and product water quality are currently undergoing thorough investigation in demonstration plants in Japan and South Africa.

II.5.2 Enabling Conditions for Desalination

The advance of the reverse osmosis desalination technology is closest in dynamics to that of the computer technology.       While conventional technologies, such as sedimentation and filtration have seen modest advancement since their initial use for potable water treatment several centuries ago, new more efficient seawater desalination membranes and membrane technologies, and equipment improvements are released every several years. Similar to computers, the RO membranes of today are many times smaller, more productive and cheaper than the first working prototypes. The future improvements of the RO membrane technology which are projected to occur by year 2030 are forecasted to encompass:

Development of Membranes of Higher Salt and Pathogen Rejection, and Productivity; and Reduced Trans- membrane Pressure, and Fouling Potential;

  • Improvement of Membrane Resistance to Oxidants, Elevated Temperature and Compaction;
  • Extension of Membrane Useful Life Beyond 10 Years;
  • Integration of Membrane Pretreatment, Advanced Energy Recovery and SWRO Systems;
  • Integration of Brackish and Seawater Desalination Systems;
  • Development of New Generation of High-Efficiency Pumps and Energy Recovery Systems For SWRO Applications;
  • Replacement of Key Stainless Steel Desalination Plant Components with Plastic Components to Increase Plant Longevity and Decrease Overall Cost of Water Production.
  • Reduction of Membrane Element Costs By Complete Automation of the Entire Production and Testing Process;
  • Development of Methods for Low- Cost Continuous Membrane Cleaning Which Allow to Reduce Downtime and Chemical Cleaning Costs;
  • Development for Methods for Low-cost Membrane Concentrate Treatment, In- Plant and Off-site Reuse, and Disposal.

Although, no major technology breakthroughs are expected to bring the cost of seawater desalination further down dramatically in the next several years, the steady reduction of desalinated water production costs coupled with increasing costs of water treatment driven by more stringent regulatory requirements, are expected to accelerate the current trend of increased reliance on the ocean as an attractive and competitive water source by year 2030.

This trend is forecasted to continue in the future and to further establish seawater desalination as a reliable drought-proof alternative for many coastal communities worldwide. These technology advances are expected to ascertain the position of SWRO treatment as viable and cost– competitive processes for potable water production and to reduce the cost of fresh water production from seawater by 25% in by year 2022 and by up to 60% by year 2030 (see Table 2).

The rate of adoption of desalination in coastal urban centers worldwide would be highly dependent on the magnitude of water stress to which they are exposed and availability of lower-cost conventional water resources.

In the future, desalination is likely to be adopted as main water supply in most arid and semi-arid regions of the world such and the Middle East, North Africa, the Western United States, and Australia and in locations of concentrated industrial demand for high quality water such as Singapore, China, and Northern Chile.


While the water industry faces diverse challenges it is making significant progress towards finding cost effective and sustainable water management solutions and disruptive technologies, which by year 2030 are expected to transform water management and elevate its reliance on alternative water resources such as water reuse and desalination. Water professionals worldwide are united in building a future where water is recognized and treated as precious, highly valuable resource, and as a cornerstone of circular economy.

The main transformational change of the water industry is that it is entering a new era of water management where the old barriers of water and wastewater are slowly fading and where water in all of its states is looked upon as a valuable commodity and precious resource that has to be closely monitored, digitalized, accounted for, and reused rather than being considered just a simple source of supply or waste that has to be disposed of.

Traditionally water utilities have managed water supply and treatment of wastewater, minimizing the impact on the environment by removing nutrients and using the waste generated in a beneficial manner. In order to adopt to the challenges they face in the next 10 to 15 years, utilities have to develop diversified portfolio of water supply in which conventional and direct potable water reuse and desalination have comparable share to that of conventional water treatment sources such as rivers, lakes and dams. In order for such fundamental transformation of the water industry to occur by year 2030, the fundamental legal framework, which currently regulates water and wastewater separately (e.g., in the US they are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act) has to be transformed into a unified One-Water Act that recognizes water as a valuable resource in all of its forms and uses.


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Nikolay Voutchkov

Over 35 years of experience in the field of desalination and water reuse. Published 10 technical books on desalination plant design and operation. Recognized with numerous awards for applied research and...

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