Abundant biomass to support solar in desalination project

Seawater could be converted into drinking water using biomass energy as a heat source in a new project between academics in England and Egypt.

The two-year project will see a team from the Energy 2050 Institute based at Sheffield University partner with academics at Port Said University in Egypt to develop a system that could provide fresh and safe water in poor and rural communities.

According to Sheffield University, Egypt’s growing population and scarcity of water resources means that freshwater supplies are becoming increasingly stressed.

Desalination technologies offer an alternative source of water but at a high energy cost. Renewable solar energy has been used in these technologies but it suffers due to intermittency.

A hybrid system using biogas and solar is an entirely new technology with only a handful of studies being attempted so far. There are several options for the integration of the hybrid energy system and the desalination process and the process will explore thermal and electrically based freshwater production systems.

The collaborative team will investigate whether biogas produced from biological matter – such as cattle manure – could be used as a viable backup to solar. The team will simultaneously find the optimum way of integrating the two technologies to maximise fresh water production.

The project will involve a survey of biogas resources in Egypt, a model-based design and optimisation of the hybrid desalination system and will investigate the operational strategies to ensure cost-effective and reliable drinking water supply to rural communities.

The team hopes that the hybridisation of biogas and solar energy sources will lead to more reliable and flexible energy production but also will be cheaper than using a single renewable energy technology alone.

In a statement, Dr Mark Walker, research associate at Energy 2050, said: “The first part of the project will see us look at how to maximise fresh water production at the lowest cost. We’ll also be investigating how different wastes can help us to produce the most energy to supply the system.

“Our project could provide continuous production of fresh water to rural areas, at a low cost and smaller carbon footprint than current technologies.”  

A pilot demonstration system will be built in Egypt and will be monitored by the joint UK/Egyptian team to assess its performance. The team hope to install integrated desalination systems in poor and rural communities of Egypt like Sinai, Nile-Delta and Upper Egypt.

The project has been funded by the British Council’s Newton Fund Institutional Links programme and Science and Technology Development Fund in Egypt (STDF).