Desalination and wastewater recycling advances mean more efficient water usage

Sustainability |  4 min. read
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Access to clean drinking water is foundational to human life and to successful economies. While the old adage that oil and water don’t mix might be true, technologies and innovations driven or created by petrochemicals are essential to bringing clean water to communities across the world.

While billions around the world lack access to clean water, new and emerging technologies – including desalination, recycled gray water, and corrosion-resistant piping – have the potential to bring this resource to more people than ever before.

Critically, without petrochemicals, none of these avenues would be available. From advanced microfiltration done with polymer membranes made from polyamide and polysulfone layers in a polyester support web, to the PVC and high-density polyethylene pipes that deliver water to millions of homes, petrochemicals are an indispensable part of our world’s water systems.

Aromatics are petrochemical building blocks that contain a benzene ring in the molecular structure. Benzene, toluene and xylene fall into this category. Two of these three, benzene and xylene, are central to advanced membrane technology. Polyester comes from xylene and both the polyamide and polysulfone are derived from benzene.

Taming the sea

One of the most prominent examples of harnessing salty sea water as a resource is desalination. The process, used in water-starved areas across the globe, from Israel to Australia to Southern California, is able to turn thousands of gallons a day into fresh water, used in people’s homes, at restaurants, and at businesses and manufacturing centers.

The Dow Chemical desalination plant in Carlsbad, California serves nearly 400,000 users in San Diego County, meeting seven percent of the local water needs in a renewable manner, not subject to the droughts that have plagued the region in recent years.

Desalination plants also require a number of specialized, corrosion-resistant materials including INEOS’s Derakane™ epoxy vinyl ester resins that help keep pipes running at the plants, as well as at water treatment facilities. Those resins start with ethylene, propylene and benzene.

And LyondellBasell, the world’s largest producer of polymer compounds, is manufacturing durable, quick-install water pipes that are protecting from contamination with lower maintenance needs. High-density polyethylene from ethylene is key to modern municipal water pipes.

Reusing wastewater

For communities that have access to unfiltered or potentially bacteria-laden water, the ability to filter it for use can provide boundless economic opportunities.

In Orange and San Diego Counties in Southern California, new systems are turning graywater back into drinking water, cleaner than natural springs. While the ‘toilet to tap’ moniker might be off-putting to some, the ability to reuse water multiple times is imperative as the region plans for its long-term sustainability.

These water-recycling systems employ both wastewater treatment methods like those developed by CP Chem, corrosion-resistant pipes, and reverse-osmosis processes that companies including Dupont are bringing to market every day.

Just as membrane technology depends on petrochemicals, so do water treatment chemicals. For instance, mercaptoethanol, which is used as a corrosion inhibitor, is made from ethylene oxide (a derivative of ethylene). Diethyl hydroxylamine, used as an oxygen scavenger, is derived from ethanol (think ethylene).

And, it is not just dry California that is employing these types of water reuse programs. The Australian Antarctic Division uses reverse osmosis to filter and reuse its water on the world’s driest continent to ensure supplies go as far as possible.

Using water more efficiently

We all know that fresh water is a finite resource, worthy of smart use. While many large-scale manufacturing operations and refining processes require large volumes of water, numerous companies are making substantial strides toward more efficient systems.

At its Richmond Refinery in Northern California, Chevron is using recycled wastewater to help run refinery operations, giving water a second use.

Additionally, municipalities are looking for ways to limit water waste and service disruptions from aging water and sewer mains. In Decatur, Illinois, Aegion’s plastic pipe inserts have helped bring service back to the historic downtown businesses with minimal breaks in service. The company’s fusible PVC is durable and corrosion resistant, as are the high-density polyethylene carrying tubes, and the Tyfo® polymer systems increase structural performance for many types of existing pipes.

Some Tyfo® systems use fiber-reinforced epoxy resin technologies to add strength and leakage protection to existing pipes. The carbon fibers come from polyacrylonitrile, which starts with propylene. The epoxy resins also start with propylene and use benzene rings for the backbone structure. Other Tyfo systems use a polyester resin-saturated material with a polypropylene coating. The polyester resins use xylene as a building block to make the isophthalic acid-based backbone. And of course polypropylene comes from the building block propylene.

Planning for a better water future

With water scarcity expected to continue rising in coming decades, efficiency and sustainability will only gain importance. AECOM’s team of planners and professionals have been working to design systems that utilize membrane technologies to upgrade existing facilities or build new ones. Meanwhile Hazen and Sawyer facilitated the redesign and planning for New York City’s Croton Water Treatment Plant, producing up to 290 million gallons per day of finished water.

For communities still developing their water infrastructure systems, the number of petrochemical-supported systems making it simpler and more cost effective to bring clean, fresh drinking water to families, schools, and businesses is only set to increase. Given all the benefits that come with reliable water supplies, that is a future worth continued innovation and investment.

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