King Khalid UniversityThe Saudi Arabian university on a quest for clean water sources

The Saudi Arabian university on a quest for clean water sources

King Khalid University Water Resources Research Unit

The Energy and Water Resources Research Unit at King Khalid University in Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of research into more sustainable ways to provide clean, drinkable water for the kingdom

It’s well known that clean, usable water is scarce in Saudi Arabia. Today, around 50 per cent of the kingdom’s drinking water comes from desalination, and it is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water. Last year, the government announced a national programme to cut water consumption by 43 per cent by 2030 in a bid to achieve long-term water rationalisation. But while the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture aims to reduce daily per capita consumption from 263 litres to 150 litres, finding more sustainable methods of desalination is still a priority. King Khalid University (KKU) is one of the institutions looking into more renewable and sustainable ways to supply water to citizens.

KKU’s Energy and Water Resources Research Unit is one of the divisions at the university to benefit from a doubling in the scientific research budget over the past five years. Dr Ali Anqi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at KKU, explains: “Saudi Arabia is very arid, so we need to develop freshwater resources. The problem is that salination plants work by burning fuel, which in turn increases our carbon emissions. We’re looking at how we can produce freshwater using renewable energy, working on innovative technologies that are still in the lab stage.”

One of the challenges is that water sources in different regions of Saudi Arabia have different properties, meaning certain processes need to be applied to produce freshwater. “If we’re using brackish water as you would find in the middle of Saudi Arabia, we would have to use a technology that could not be used to extract freshwater from seawater,” Dr Anqi says. “In some places, there are elements that could contaminate the water so that requires different processes again.” The Energy and Water Resources Research Unit has populated a database of relevant water sources and the approaches required for each, building enough computing power in the lab to conduct simulations to back up its findings.

The goal is to minimise the energy consumption of water desalination processes as much as possible, so the unit is looking at renewable energy sources such as solar and geothermal, the latter of which uses heat to evaporate and condense water to purify it. The unit is also carrying out research into reverse osmosis desalination, which transfers water through a series of semi-permeable membranes. “These still face relatively high energy consumption, however, so we want to increase the lifetime of membranes so we replace them every two years rather than every six months. This means lower cost and lower energy consumption,” Dr Anqi says.

The Energy and Water Resources Research Unit receives funding from the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education as well as from the university itself. It also has a partnership with King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, which has an established water research centre. “Applying for funding from the government can be competitive because we are a new university and funding often goes to established universities,” Dr Anqi says. “We try to work with well-established universities and mimic the way they get funding.”

International partnerships are important for progressing research into water desalination. Dr Anqi and his team are looking to secure funds through collaborations with Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California. Global collaborations help to broaden the international understanding of the potential challenges with water desalination. For example, Saudi Arabia does not face the same issues with the coal industry as the US and Europe, but mining in the kingdom introduces heavy metals into the water and these need to be eliminated. A significant proportion of the nation’s drinking water also comes from mining non-renewable groundwater, so it’s crucial to look at a broad range of water sources. 

The next step is to work with industry to fund future research, and a natural target could be the mining companies that introduced elements into the water. “In the near future, we would like to collaborate with these companies to eliminate these elements and boost our funding,” Dr Anqi says.

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