Two Decades In The Making, Egypt’s Big Desalination Breakthrough

Though the Earth is covered with water, 95% of it is undrinkable, and water scarcity threatens millions of people. But researchers in Egypt have found an inexpensive way to turn salt water into drinkable water, and its implications could be enormous.

Desalination using a membrane
Desalination using a membrane
Robert Barron

ALEXANDRIA â€" Leaving Atlanta in 1997, using her last dollars before the long trip home, Mona Naim picked up a book called Standard Handbook of Hazardous Waste Treatment and Disposal â€" light reading for the flight back to Egypt. The purchase sparked nearly two decades of experiments at Alexandria University that may eventually affect billions of lives.

The research Naim began in 1997 culminated in an article published in August in the academic journal Water Science and Technology. In the article, a team of Egyptian researchers â€" Mona Naim, Abeer Moneer, Ahmed El-Shafei and Mahmoud Elewa â€" described a simple and efficient new process for turning salt water into clean drinking water.

In the weeks after its publication, news of the research drew headlines around the world. The team behind it has attracted less attention, but as a group of Egyptian scientists using a government grant to achieve outstanding results, their story serves as a model for what local researchers can accomplish when they work together and are supported properly.

Water, water everywhere

Water covers 70% of the Earth's surface, but 95% of it is undrinkable. MIT estimates that 700 million people, 10% of the world, don't have access to clean drinking water. By 2025, that number may be 1.8 billion. Earth's population is rapidly increasing as freshwater resources simultaneously decline. Experts have said "the era of easy water is over."

Water scarcity is especially relevant to Egypt, where water availability per capita has fallen by more than 60% since 1970. By United Nations standards, Egypt is more than 30% below the threshold for scarcity and is considered "water poor," a condition that is expected to worsen in the years ahead.

The solution is to find a way to make undrinkable water drinkable â€" turning salt water into fresh. Unfortunately, the current methods are expensive and inefficient. The most widely used is reverse osmosis, which requires a substantial amount of electricity to push tainted water through a membrane that removes unwanted particles. A report by Yale University estimates that, at best, it costs twice as much to desalinate water with reverse osmosis as it does to process average groundwater.

Naim and her team developed a desalination technique that uses up to 70% less energy than reverse osmosis and can be powered by solar energy. Their work brings a key innovation to the field of desalination: a more efficient and inexpensive membrane. For the first time, this membrane may make it feasible to desalinate large amounts of water using pervaporation, a technique in which water is purified using a combination of evaporation and membranes.

Their method uses cheap and abundant materials and can process water with very high levels of salt and contaminants. The team's findings are among the most promising in this field in years and may eventually relieve some of the pressure on the Earth's clean water supply.

A team and a process

Now 72, Naim is professor emeritus in the Alexandria University Faculty of Engineering. She proudly calls herself the mother of the group, "her family" â€" a description they all embrace.

It's not hard to imagine how this team dynamic could achieve results. Sitting around a coffee table, they joke and compliment each other, laughing about stories from their time together.

Naim has lived in Alexandria all of her life. Her father, a professor of medicine at Alexandria University, inspired her love of science and encouraged her path towards engineering. In registering for her master's degree in 1967, her advisor "made me work on membrane fabrication," she says. The topic has become her area of expertise over a long career of teaching and research.

Her work on desalination is not her only research of note, but she recognizes that it is probably her most noticed. The attention the project has received took her by surprise. "It was the first time that anyone showed us appreciation. We got so many emails," she says.

Sitting next to Naim is Abeer Moneer, associate professor at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries and another Alexandria native. "It was my always dream to get to the Faculty of Engineering," Moneer says. Her father, an employee with the Ministry of Social Affairs, and her mother, a teacher, encouraged her studies.

Moneer has been working closely with Naim since the beginning of her master's degree in 1991, when she began research on liquid membranes. Moneer waited to start work on her PhD until 1998, when Naim returned to Egypt. Researching together for more than 25 years, the two can â€" and often do â€" finish each other's sentences. Their expertise and personal relationship made the project possible.

Mahmoud Elewa, head of the Research Development Department of the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, earned his PhD on the same day as Moneer in 2005. Like Moneer, he has worked closely with Naim since his time in university. "I assigned pervaporation for desalination as his topic," Moneer says.

"At the time, nobody in the whole world was working on this topic," Elewa says. "I could find no documents on desalination by pervaporation."

Ultimately, Elewa joined the private sector, where his career has concentrated on research and development. "I like academics and research, but I don't like teaching," he explains. "My background is practical."

The final member of the group is Ahmed El-Shafei, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems in the Faculty of Agriculture. Shafei is a comparative newcomer to the group, having started working with Naim and Moneer in 2010.

Shafei’s father, who worked in a copper factory, had dreams of his son becoming a doctor. "He didn't force me, but he encouraged me to study biology," he says. "He had only a preliminary degree, but he loved mathematics and taught me to love mathematics."

Since receiving degrees in agricultural and civil engineering, his career has focused on irrigation, drainage, soil mechanics and pollution â€" areas where science, agriculture and engineering meet. During an irrigation project in 2010, Shafei sought advice on desalination from colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering, an encounter that completed the team.

"From this day, I haven't left them alone," he says. Shafei's expertise contributed greatly to the project, his colleagues say.

Local resources

Historically, university research in Egypt has been underfunded. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that funding for research and development amounted to just 0.43% of GDP. By contrast, the United States spent 2.73%, South Korea 4.04% and Russia 1.01%.

But the team made good use of the resources available. In 2010, they responded to a call for research proposals on "new methods for desalination" from the Egyptian Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF), a government initiative to strengthen research in science and technology. Of 450 applications, seven were chosen. The team won two of those seven grants, receiving $230,000 to conduct their research on both liquid membranes and pervaporation as methods of desalination.

Pervaporation is generally used for separating liquids and had not previously been very successful as a method for desalination. "There had been trials, but they had not seen very good results," Naim says, explaining that previous tests were both complicated and uneconomical.

The process they developed is simple, as they explain it: Salt water is placed in a holding tank, ideally heated to a point around 40 degrees Celsius. The water is then circulated over a membrane stack, consisting of a plant-derived cellulose mixture, which separates water from unwanted particles â€" in this case, salt and other chemicals. Underneath the membrane, an air current flows in the opposite direction, vaporizing the water flowing through the membrane. The water vapor, fully purified, is then condensed and collected.

"We tried many different blends to reach the optimum membrane," Naim says. "It took years." After experimenting with more than 100 combinations, the team developed a membrane than can draw clean water from a more than 40% salt solution. By comparison, the Dead Sea is only 34% salt. More importantly, the process is cheap, using about a third of the energy reverse osmosis requires and inexpensive materials available in countries facing water scarcity.

Going forward

The team has already received interest from a number of organizations hoping to assist in the next steps of moving the project from prototype to pilot plant and eventually large-scale, commercially viable plants that could help billions facing water scarcity.

Naim says she hopes their success can serve as an example of what local scientists can achieve if they have access to research funding. "I am proud that the STDF was founded and it started assisting scientists and researchers because really it helped us a lot," she says.

The researchers also hope the project might inspire other Egyptian scientists to embrace teamwork. Interdisciplinary research in Egypt is rare, the team members say. "Here in Egypt, everyone likes to work on his own. Research is only individual," Moneer explains.

"We are like a puzzle," Moneer adds with a smile, describing how well the team fits together.

Ultimately, they hope their findings will benefit mankind and prompt more research into desalination. "We need the world to put great effort into desalination, because it is the only way we can produce water for drinking and irrigation â€" for life," Naim says. "Water means life.”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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