Solar in Saudi: IBM Aims to Produce the Nation's Most Precious Resource -- Water

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 8:45 AM EDT

Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil and a lot of sun. What it really needs is water -- specifically fresh water -- and a cheap and inexpensive way to make it. That's driven a big investment in renewable energy, opening an opportunistic door to companies like IBM, which recently partnered with local scientists to build a solar-powered desalination plant.

Most of Saudi Arabia's fresh water comes from desalination, a process that turns saltwater into a drinkable supply. Typically, desalination occurs through reverse osmosis, a process where pressure pushes water through semi-permeable membrane that doesn't allow salt to pass. But there's a problem. It takes a lot of energy to power these plants. In Saudi Arabia this means using oil for fuel to make water. Some 1.5 million barrels of oil are used every day to power Saudi Arabia's desalination plants, causing the price of desalinated water to rise with the price of crude.

The IBM project is just the latest attempt to solve this problem. IBM researchers and scientists at Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) have worked for two years on a number of desalination technology projects. The partners will combine two of these to create a solar-powered desalination plant that will produce 7.9 million gallons of water a day for the town Al Khafji, which has 100,000 people. The goal is to reduce the amount of energy used to desalinate water and improve the efficiency enough to reduce the overall cost by some 40 percent.

The ultimate goal, according to IBM and KACST, is to produce all of Saudi Arabia's drinking water using solar energy. What makes IBM's project unique is that it works to improve the membrane technology, uses solar to power the plant and has a cooling system -- using the same technology used to cool microprocessors -- to minimize system outages.

IBM is certainly not the first company to dig into the desalination industry. There are some 12,000 desalination plants currently operating around the world. And companies like GE and Dow have worked on improving desalination in hopes of capitalizing on the growing need. There are other start-ups aiming to solve the energy-intensiveness of desalination, including Saltworks Technologies.

But the opportunities in Saudi Arabia are huge because the country is so reliant on desalination. For example, Japanese companies Toyobo and Itochu have partnered with Saudi Arabia to build a $352 million plant that will construct the equipment used in desalination plants.

Photo of concentrated solar photovoltaics unit at IBM Research from IBM