PCCell GmbH
PCCell GmbH Lebacher Strasse 60 66265 Heusweiler Germany

Water Desalination

Water Desalination

Water Desalination general comparison of methods for the deionization of sea water and brackish water to produce drinking water
1. Introduction

Water seems to be a superabundant natural resource on the planet earth. However, only 0.3 per cent of the world's total amount of water can be used as clean drinking water. Man requires huge amounts of drinking water every day and extracts it from nature for innumerable purposes. As natural fresh water resources are limited, sea water plays an important part as a source for drinking water as well. In order to use this water, it has to be desalinated. So, sea water desalination is a real challenge for western civilisation.

The base method for sea water desalination is distillation. Approximately 620 kWh of evaporation enthalpy is necessary to obtain 1t of drinking water.

In technical installations, a multiple stage flash (MSF) evaporator is used requiring approximately 100 kWH/t (hot steam at 2 bar) and 3.5 kWh/t of electric energy for pumps.

Membrane processes

Membrane processes can produce desalinated water without evaporation. Thus energy consumption can be much lower. Generally, two different strategies of obtaining the desired water can be performed: moving the water through a membrane or moving the ions through a membrane.
The theoretical energy consumption to remove the salt from one volume sea water (diluate) to another (concentrate) is an enthropic energy demand of around 1,7 kWh/t of water.

Reverse osmosis (RO) plants produce drinking water with 2,5 kWh/t (large plants with pump pressure recycling and low water recovery rate) of electric energy for pump operation from sea water (total salt content of 3.7 percent). In small plants without pump pressure recycling energy requirements rise to 20-40 kWh/t of water.

Electrodialysis with ion exchanges membranes, remove the ions with electric power as the driving force from the water which is to be desalinated. Consequently, the power consumption is proportional to the salt content of the water.Therefore, this method is much more favourable in case of low salt contents, such as brackish water or water extracted from briny sources (heavily exploited fresh water sources near the sea) with an energy consumption of 1-5 kWh/t, than in case of high salt concentrations (energy required up to 10-20 kWh/t).

In case of relatively low salt contents, electrodialysis is fully competitive with regard to RO. To opt for one method or the other, the differences between both as dicussed below have to be considered.

2. Drinking Water

Water demineralization processes differ not only in the driving force but also in the water quality obtained. The energy consumption of the different methods depends on the quality of the water produced and the feed water composition. Water deionization generally intends to produce drinking water, whose composition is given in the following table.

The WHO standards for drinking water are [1]:

3. Comparison of reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodialysis (ED)

Since 1990, RO has been improved continuously with regard to its performance, i.e. investment cost, performance per membrane area and power demand.
In contrast, there has been no considerable progress concerning the (well-known) problems of ED. However, the advantages of ED remain:

It is the only method which offers "living" water, i.e., the desalinated water is close to the original water. The salt is extracted from the water, but the water as such remains untouched. It is not forced through a membrane as in the case of RO. Therefore, the water retains all other substances which might be in it. With ED, the salt is concentrated in a real brine. It can be used for salt production whereas RO does not produce any highly concentrated solutions. ED requires less than 1.5 m3 H2O/t, whereas RO requires around 2 t. Depending on the specific application, the question of what to do with the highly concentrated salt acquires a certain importance. - This will not pose any problem when talking about sea water, but what about briny sources? In case of water containing nitrate, nitrate concentration can be reduced selectively by means of ED.

As a conclusion, it can be stated that RO has already reached its optimum, whereas ED still has a large potential for further development.

4. Potential for future developments of ED

The most important areas of optimization are still:

  • concentration polarisation,
  • membrane resistance,
  • ion-conduction spacers.

PCA GmbH ist working on these problems.

Do you have any questions?
Would you like to participate in research?
Are you looking for a subject of a thesis?

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This calculation example shows how to get a rough idea of the membrane area you might require for your application.

Calculation example:

100 litres of sea water (4% NaCl solution) per hour are to be desalinated by electrodialysis. This corresponds to the transport of 68.4 mol salt per hour.

We are looking for the expected required membrane area or the number of required electrodialysis cell pairs with a stack size of 500x500mm.

Calculation bases:

80% current yield

0.32 kA / m2 Average current density

Effective membrane area x 1.4 = actual membrane area = 500 x 500 mm

no other difficulties


Quantity of material x Faraday constant / current yield = current across all cell pairs

68.4 mol/h x 96480 As/mol / 0.80 = 2300 A

Required area = current across all cell pairs / current density

2300 A / 320 A / m2 = 7.2 m2

Number of cell pairs = Required area x 1.4 / actual membrane area

7.2 m2 x 1.4 / 0.25 m2 = 40 cell pairs

Current via ED-Stack = actual membrane area / 1.4 x current density

0,25 m2 / 1,4 x 320 A / m2 = 57 A

If you would like to find out whether a desalination plant using electrodialysis is suitable for your application, you can use the following calculation example to determine a possible design for your plant. All you have to do is recalculate the example with your process specifications. In this way, you can easily determine the membrane area you require, the number of cell pairs and the required current.

This calculation example is intended exclusively for academic purposes. We accept no liability for technical systems designed or operated on the basis of these considerations. In particular, you should bear in mind that the point "no other difficulties" as a basis for calculation is almost never fulfilled, as there are usually non-ideal conditions to which the plant must be adapted.

PCCell GmbH
Lebacher Strasse 60
66265 Heusweiler / Germany
+49 6806 603732
+49 6806 603731