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Ro Process Description Essay

For the University of Southern California a cappella group, see Reverse Osmosis (group).

Reverse osmosis (RO) is a water purification technology that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules and larger particles from drinking water. In reverse osmosis, an applied pressure is used to overcome osmotic pressure, a colligative property, that is driven by chemical potential differences of the solvent, a thermodynamic parameter. Reverse osmosis can remove many types of dissolved and suspended species from water, including bacteria, and is used in both industrial processes and the production of potable water. The result is that the solute is retained on the pressurized side of the membrane and the pure solvent is allowed to pass to the other side. To be "selective", this membrane should not allow large molecules or ions through the pores (holes), but should allow smaller components of the solution (such as solvent molecules) to pass freely.[1]

In the normal osmosis process, the solvent naturally moves from an area of low solute concentration (high water potential), through a membrane, to an area of high solute concentration (low water potential). The driving force for the movement of the solvent is the reduction in the free energy of the system when the difference in solvent concentration on either side of a membrane is reduced, generating osmotic pressure due to the solvent moving into the more concentrated solution. Applying an external pressure to reverse the natural flow of pure solvent, thus, is reverse osmosis. The process is similar to other membrane technology applications. However, key differences are found between reverse osmosis and filtration. The predominant removal mechanism in membrane filtration is straining, or size exclusion, so the process can theoretically achieve perfect efficiency regardless of parameters such as the solution's pressure and concentration. Reverse osmosis also involves diffusion, making the process dependent on pressure, flow rate, and other conditions.[2] Reverse osmosis is most commonly known for its use in drinking water purification from seawater, removing the salt and other effluent materials from the water molecules.


A process of osmosis through semipermeable membranes was first observed in 1748 by Jean-Antoine Nollet. For the following 200 years, osmosis was only a phenomenon observed in the laboratory. In 1950, the University of California at Los Angeles first investigated desalination of seawater using semipermeable membranes. Researchers from both University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Florida successfully produced fresh water from seawater in the mid-1950s, but the flux was too low to be commercially viable[3] until the discovery at University of California at Los Angeles by Sidney Loeb[4] and Srinivasa Sourirajan at the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa, of techniques for making asymmetric membranes characterized by an effectively thin "skin" layer supported atop a highly porous and much thicker substrate region of the membrane. John Cadotte, of FilmTec Corporation, discovered that membranes with particularly high flux and low salt passage could be made by interfacial polymerization of m-phenylene diamine and trimesoyl chloride. Cadotte's patent on this process[5] was the subject of litigation and has since expired. Almost all commercial reverse osmosis membrane is now made by this method. By the end of 2001, about 15,200 desalination plants were in operation or in the planning stages, worldwide.[2]

In 1977 Cape Coral, Florida became the first municipality in the United States to use the RO process on a large scale with an initial operating capacity of 3 million gallons (11350 m³) per day. By 1985, due to the rapid growth in population of Cape Coral, the city had the largest low pressure reverse osmosis plant in the world, capable of producing 15 million gallons per day (MGD) (56800 m³/d).[6]


Formally, reverse osmosis is the process of forcing a solvent from a region of high solute concentration through a semipermeable membrane to a region of low solute concentration by applying a pressure in excess of the osmotic pressure. The largest and most important application of reverse osmosis is the separation of pure water from seawater and brackish waters; seawater or brackish water is pressurized against one surface of the membrane, causing transport of salt-depleted water across the membrane and emergence of potable drinking water from the low-pressure side.

The membranes used for reverse osmosis have a dense layer in the polymer matrix—either the skin of an asymmetric membrane or an interfacially polymerized layer within a thin-film-composite membrane—where the separation occurs. In most cases, the membrane is designed to allow only water to pass through this dense layer while preventing the passage of solutes (such as salt ions). This process requires that a high pressure be exerted on the high concentration side of the membrane, usually 2–17 bar (30–250 psi) for fresh and brackish water, and 40–82 bar (600–1200 psi) for seawater, which has around 27 bar (390 psi)[7] natural osmotic pressure that must be overcome. This process is best known for its use in desalination (removing the salt and other minerals from sea water to produce fresh water), but since the early 1970s, it has also been used to purify fresh water for medical, industrial, and domestic applications.

Fresh water applications[edit]

Drinking water purification[edit]

Around the world, household drinking waterpurification systems, including a reverse osmosis step, are commonly used for improving water for drinking and cooking.

Such systems typically include a number of steps:

  • a sediment filter to trap particles, including rust and calcium carbonate
  • optionally, a second sediment filter with smaller pores
  • an activated carbon filter to trap organic chemicals and chlorine, which will attack and degrade thin film composite membrane reverse osmosis membranes
  • a reverse osmosis filter, which is a thin film composite membrane
  • optionally, a second carbon filter to capture those chemicals not removed by the reverse osmosis membrane
  • optionally an ultraviolet lamp for sterilizing any microbes that may escape filtering by the reverse osmosis membrane

The latest developments in the sphere include nano materials and membranes.

In some systems, the carbon prefilter is omitted, and a cellulose triacetate membrane is used. CTA (cellulose triacetate) is a paper by-product membrane bonded to a synthetic layer and is made to allow contact with chlorine in the water. These require a small amount of chlorine in the water source to prevent bacteria from forming on it. The typical rejection rate for CTA membranes is 85–95%.

The cellulose triacetate membrane is prone to rotting unless protected by chlorinated water, while the thin film composite membrane is prone to breaking down under the influence of chlorine. A thin film composite (TFC) membrane is made of synthetic material, and requires chlorine to be removed before the water enters the membrane. To protect the TFC membrane elements from chlorine damage, carbon filters are used as pre-treatment in all residential reverse osmosis systems. TFC membranes have a higher rejection rate of 95–98% and a longer life than CTA membranes.

Portable reverse osmosis water processors are sold for personal water purification in various locations. To work effectively, the water feeding to these units should be under some pressure (40 pounds per square inch (280 kPa) or greater is the norm).[8] Portable reverse osmosis water processors can be used by people who live in rural areas without clean water, far away from the city's water pipes. Rural people filter river or ocean water themselves, as the device is easy to use (saline water may need special membranes). Some travelers on long boating, fishing, or island camping trips, or in countries where the local water supply is polluted or substandard, use reverse osmosis water processors coupled with one or more ultraviolet sterilizers.

In the production of bottled mineral water, the water passes through a reverse osmosis water processor to remove pollutants and microorganisms. In European countries, though, such processing of natural mineral water (as defined by a European directive[9]) is not allowed under European law. In practice, a fraction of the living bacteria can and do pass through reverse osmosis membranes through minor imperfections, or bypass the membrane entirely through tiny leaks in surrounding seals. Thus, complete reverse osmosis systems may include additional water treatment stages that use ultraviolet light or ozone to prevent microbiological contamination.

Membrane pore sizes can vary from 0.1 to 5,000 nm (4×10−9 to 2×10−4 in) depending on filter type. Particle filtration removes particles of 1 μm (3.9×10−5 in) or larger. Microfiltration removes particles of 50 nm or larger. Ultrafiltration removes particles of roughly 3 nm or larger. Nanofiltration removes particles of 1 nm or larger. Reverse osmosis is in the final category of membrane filtration, hyperfiltration, and removes particles larger than 0.1 nm.[10]

Military use: the reverse osmosis water purification unit[edit]

A reverse osmosis water purification unit (ROWPU) is a portable, self-contained water treatment plant. Designed for military use, it can provide potable water from nearly any water source. There are many models in use by the United States armed forces and the Canadian Forces. Some models are containerized, some are trailers, and some are vehicles unto themselves.[citation needed]

Each branch of the United States armed forces has their own series of reverse osmosis water purification unit models, but they are all similar. The water is pumped from its raw source into the reverse osmosis water purification unit module, where it is treated with a polymer to initiate coagulation. Next, it is run through a multi-media filter where it undergoes primary treatment by removing turbidity. It is then pumped through a cartridge filter which is usually spiral-wound cotton. This process clarifies the water of any particles larger than 5 micrometres (0.00020 in) and eliminates almost all turbidity.[citation needed]

The clarified water is then fed through a high-pressure piston pump into a series of vessels where it is subject to reverse osmosis. The product water is free of 90.00–99.98% of the raw water's total dissolved solids and by military standards, should have no more than 1000–1500 parts per million by measure of electrical conductivity. It is then disinfected with chlorine and stored for later use.[citation needed]

Within the United States Marine Corps, the reverse osmosis water purification unit has been replaced by both the Lightweight Water Purification System and Tactical Water Purification Systems.[11] The Lightweight Water Purification Systems can be transported by Humvee and filter 125 US gallons (470 l) per hour. The Tactical Water Purification Systems can be carried on a Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement truck, and can filter 1,200 to 1,500 US gallons (4,500 to 5,700 l) per hour.[citation needed]

Water and wastewater purification[edit]

Rain water collected from storm drains is purified with reverse osmosis water processors and used for landscape irrigation and industrial cooling in Los Angeles and other cities, as a solution to the problem of water shortages.

In industry, reverse osmosis removes minerals from boiler water at power plants.[12] The water is distilled multiple times. It must be as pure as possible so it does not leave deposits on the machinery or cause corrosion. The deposits inside or outside the boiler tubes may result in underperformance of the boiler, bringing down its efficiency and resulting in poor steam production, hence poor power production at the turbine.

It is also used to clean effluent and brackish groundwater. The effluent in larger volumes (more than 500 m3/d) should be treated in an effluent treatment plant first, and then the clear effluent is subjected to reverse osmosis system. Treatment cost is reduced significantly and membrane life of the reverse osmosis system is increased.

The process of reverse osmosis can be used for the production of deionized water.[13]

Reverse osmosis process for water purification does not require thermal energy. Flow-through reverse osmosis systems can be regulated by high-pressure pumps. The recovery of purified water depends upon various factors, including membrane sizes, membrane pore size, temperature, operating pressure, and membrane surface area.

In 2002, Singapore announced that a process named NEWater would be a significant part of its future water plans. It involves using reverse osmosis to treat domestic wastewater before discharging the NEWater back into the reservoirs.

Food industry[edit]

In addition to desalination, reverse osmosis is a more economical operation for concentrating food liquids (such as fruit juices) than conventional heat-treatment processes. Research has been done on concentration of orange juice and tomato juice. Its advantages include a lower operating cost and the ability to avoid heat-treatment processes, which makes it suitable for heat-sensitive substances such as the protein and enzymes found in most food products.

Reverse osmosis is extensively used in the dairy industry for the production of whey protein powders and for the concentration of milk to reduce shipping costs. In whey applications, the whey (liquid remaining after cheese manufacture) is concentrated with reverse osmosis from 6% total solids to 10–20% total solids before ultrafiltration processing. The ultrafiltration retentate can then be used to make various whey powders, including whey protein isolate. Additionally, the ultrafiltration permeate, which contains lactose, is concentrated by reverse osmosis from 5% total solids to 18–22% total solids to reduce crystallization and drying costs of the lactose powder.

Although use of the process was once avoided in the wine industry, it is now widely understood and used. An estimated 60 reverse osmosis machines were in use in Bordeaux, France, in 2002. Known users include many of the elite classed growths (Kramer) such as Château Léoville-Las Cases in Bordeaux.[14]

Maple syrup production[edit]

In 1946, some maple syrup producers started using reverse osmosis to remove water from sap before the sap is boiled down to syrup. The use of reverse osmosis allows about 75–90% of the water to be removed from the sap, reducing energy consumption and exposure of the syrup to high temperatures. Microbial contamination and degradation of the membranes must be monitored.

Hydrogen production[edit]

For small-scale hydrogen production, reverse osmosis is sometimes used to prevent formation of minerals on the surface of electrodes.

Reef aquariums[edit]

Many reef aquarium keepers use reverse osmosis systems for their artificial mixture of seawater. Ordinary tap water can contain excessive chlorine, chloramines, copper, nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, silicates, or many other chemicals detrimental to the sensitive organisms in a reef environment. Contaminants such as nitrogen compounds and phosphates can lead to excessive and unwanted algae growth. An effective combination of both reverse osmosis and deionization is the most popular among reef aquarium keepers, and is preferred above other water purification processes due to the low cost of ownership and minimal operating costs. Where chlorine and chloramines are found in the water, carbon filtration is needed before the membrane, as the common residential membrane used by reef keepers does not cope with these compounds.

Window cleaning[edit]

An increasingly popular method of cleaning windows is the so-called "water-fed pole" system. Instead of washing the windows with detergent in the conventional way, they are scrubbed with highly purified water, typically containing less than 10 ppm dissolved solids, using a brush on the end of a long pole which is wielded from ground level. Reverse osmosis is commonly used to purify the water.[15]

Landfill leachate purification[edit]

Treatment with reverse osmosis is limited, resulting in low recoveries on high concentration (measured with electrical conductivity) and fouling of the RO membranes. Reverse osmosis applicability is limited by conductivity, organics, and scaling inorganic elements such as CaSO4, Si, Fe and Ba. Low organic scaling can be used two different technology, one is using spiral wound membrane type of module, and for high organic scaling, high conductivity and higher pressure (up to 90 bars) can be used disc tube module with reverse osmosis membranes. Disc tube modules was redesigned for landfill leachate purification, what usually is contaminated with high organics. Due to the cross-flow with high velocity is given by a flow booster pump, what is recirculating the flow over the same membrane surface between 1,5 and 3 times before is released as a concentrate. High velocity is also good against membrane scaling and allows successful membrane cleanings.

Power consumption for a disc tube module system[edit]

energy consumption per m³ leachate
name of module1-stage up to 75 bar2-stage up to 75 bar3-stage up to 120 bar
disc tube module6.1 – 8.1 kWh/m³8.1 – 9.8 kWh/m³11.2 – 14.3 kWh/m³


Areas that have either no or limited surface water or groundwater may choose to desalinate. Reverse osmosis is an increasingly common method of desalination, because of its relatively low energy consumption.[16]

In recent years, energy consumption has dropped to around 3 kWh/m3, with the development of more efficient energy recovery devices and improved membrane materials. According to the International Desalination Association, for 2011, reverse osmosis was used in 66% of installed desalination capacity (0.0445 of 0.0674 km³/day), and nearly all new plants.[17] Other plants mainly use thermal distillation methods: multiple-effect distillation and multi-stage flash.

Sea water reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination, a membrane process, has been commercially used since the early 1970s. Its first practical use was demonstrated by Sidney Loeb from University of California at Los Angeles in Coalinga, California, and Srinivasa Sourirajan of National Research council, Canada. Because no heating or phase changes are needed, energy requirements are low, around 3 kWh/m3, in comparison to other processes of desalination, but are still much higher than those required for other forms of water supply, including reverse osmosis treatment of wastewater, at 0.1 to 1 kWh/m3. Up to 50% of the seawater input can be recovered as fresh water, though lower recoveries may reduce membrane fouling and energy consumption.

Brackish water reverse osmosis refers to desalination of water with a lower salt content than sea water, usually from river estuaries or saline wells. The process is substantially the same as sea water reverse osmosis, but requires lower pressures and therefore less energy.[1] Up to 80% of the feed water input can be recovered as fresh water, depending on feed salinity.

The Ashkelon sea water reverse osmosis desalination plant in Israel is the largest in the world.[18][19] The project was developed as a build-operate-transfer by a consortium of three international companies: Veolia water, IDE Technologies, and Elran.[20]

The typical single-pass sea water reverse osmosis system consists of:

  • Intake
  • Pretreatment
  • High pressure pump (if not combined with energy recovery)
  • Membrane assembly
  • Energy recovery (if used)
  • Remineralisation and pH adjustment
  • Disinfection
  • Alarm/control panel


Pretreatment is important when working with reverse osmosis and nanofiltration membranes due to the nature of their spiral-wound design. The material is engineered in such a fashion as to allow only one-way flow through the system. As such, the spiral-wound design does not allow for backpulsing with water or air agitation to scour its surface and remove solids. Since accumulated material cannot be removed from the membrane surface systems, they are highly susceptible to fouling (loss of production capacity). Therefore, pretreatment is a necessity for any reverse osmosis or nanofiltration system. Pretreatment in sea water reverse osmosis systems has four major components:

  • Screening of solids: Solids within the water must be removed and the water treated to prevent fouling of the membranes by fine particle or biological growth, and reduce the risk of damage to high-pressure pump components.
  • Cartridge filtration: Generally, string-wound polypropylene filters are used to remove particles of 1–5 µm diameter.
  • Dosing: Oxidizing biocides, such as chlorine, are added to kill bacteria, followed by bisulfite dosing to deactivate the chlorine, which can destroy a thin-film composite membrane. There are also biofouling inhibitors, which do not kill bacteria, but simply prevent them from growing slime on the membrane surface and plant walls.
  • Prefiltration pH adjustment: If the pH, hardness and the alkalinity in the feedwater result in a scaling tendency when they are concentrated in the reject stream, acid is dosed to maintain carbonates in their soluble carbonic acid form.
CO32− + H3O+ = HCO3 + H2O
HCO3 + H3O+ = H2CO3 + H2O
  • Carbonic acid cannot combine with calcium to form calcium carbonate scale. Calcium carbonate scaling tendency is estimated using the Langelier saturation index. Adding too much sulfuric acid to control carbonate scales may result in calcium sulfate, barium sulfate, or strontium sulfate scale formation on the reverse osmosis membrane.
  • Prefiltration antiscalants: Scale inhibitors (also known as antiscalants) prevent formation of all scales compared to acid, which can only prevent formation of calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate scales. In addition to inhibiting carbonate and phosphate scales, antiscalants inhibit sulfate and fluoride scales and disperse colloids and metal oxides. Despite claims that antiscalants can inhibit silica formation, no concrete evidence proves that silica polymerization can be inhibited by antiscalants. Antiscalants can control acid-soluble scales at a fraction of the dosage required to control the same scale using sulfuric acid.[21]
  • Some small scale desalination units use 'beach wells'; they are usually drilled on the seashore in close vicinity to the ocean. These intake facilities are relatively simple to build and the seawater they collect is pretreated via slow filtration through the subsurface sand/seabed formations in the area of source water extraction. Raw seawater collected using beach wells is often of better quality in terms of solids, silt, oil and grease, natural organic contamination and aquatic microorganisms, compared to open seawater intakes. Sometimes, beach intakes may also yield source water of lower salinity.

High pressure pump[edit]

The high pressure pump supplies the pressure needed to push water through the membrane, even as the membrane rejects the passage of salt through it. Typical pressures for brackish water range from 225 to 376 psi (15.5 to 26 bar, or 1.6 to 2.6 MPa). In the case of seawater, they range from 800 to 1,180 psi (55 to 81.5 bar or 6 to 8 MPa). This requires a large amount of energy. Where energy recovery is used, part of the high pressure pump's work is done by the energy recovery device, reducing the system energy inputs.

Membrane assembly[edit]

The membrane assembly consists of a pressure vessel with a membrane that allows feedwater to be pressed against it. The membrane must be strong enough to withstand whatever pressure is applied against it. Reverse osmosis membranes are made in a variety of configurations, with the two most common configurations being spiral-wound and hollow-fiber.

Only a part of the saline feed water pumped into the membrane assembly passes through the membrane with the salt removed. The remaining "concentrate" flow passes along the saline side of the membrane to flush away the concentrated salt solution. The percentage of desalinated water produced versus the saline water feed flow is known as the "recovery ratio". This varies with the salinity of the feed water and the system design parameters: typically 20% for small seawater systems, 40% – 50% for larger seawater systems, and 80% – 85% for brackish water. The concentrate flow is at typically only 3 bar / 50 psi less than the feed pressure, and thus still carries much of the high pressure pump input energy.

The desalinated water purity is a function of the feed water salinity, membrane selection and recovery ratio. To achieve higher purity a second pass can be added which generally requires re-pumping. Purity expressed as total dissolved solids typically varies from 100 to 400 parts per million (ppm or milligram/litre)on a seawater feed. A level of 500 ppm is generally accepted as the upper limit for drinking water, while the US Food and Drug Administration classifies mineral water as water containing at least 250 ppm.

Energy recovery[edit]

Energy recovery can reduce energy consumption by 50% or more. Much of the high pressure pump input energy can be recovered from the concentrate flow, and the increasing efficiency of energy recovery devices has greatly reduced the energy needs of reverse osmosis desalination. Devices used, in order of invention, are:

  • Turbine or Pelton wheel: a water turbine driven by the concentrate flow, connected to the high pressure pump drive shaft to provide part of its input power. Positive displacement axial piston motors have also been used in place of turbines on smaller systems.
  • Turbocharger: a water turbine driven by the concentrate flow, directly connected to a centrifugal pump which boosts the high pressure pump output pressure, reducing the pressure needed from the high pressure pump and thereby its energy input, similar in construction principle to car engine turbochargers.
  • Pressure exchanger: using the pressurized concentrate flow, in direct contact or via a piston, to pressurize part of the membrane feed flow to near concentrate flow pressure. A boost pump then raises this pressure by typically 3 bar / 50 psi to the membrane feed pressure. This reduces flow needed from the high-pressure pump by an amount equal to the concentrate flow, typically 60%, and thereby its energy input. These are widely used on larger low-energy systems. They are capable of 3 kWh/m3 or less energy consumption.
  • Energy recovery pump: a reciprocating piston pump having the pressurized concentrate flow applied to one side of each piston to help drive the membrane feed flow from the opposite side. These are the simplest energy recovery devices to apply, combining the high pressure pump and energy recovery in a single self-regulating unit. These are widely used on smaller low-energy systems. They are capable of 3 kWh/m3 or less energy consumption.
  • Batch operation: Reverse osmosis systems run with a fixed volume of fluid (thermodynamically a closed system) do not suffer from wasted energy in the brine stream, as the energy to pressurize a virtually incompressible fluid (water) is negligible. Such systems have the potential to reach second law efficiencies of 60%.[1]

Remineralisation and pH adjustment[edit]

The desalinated water is "stabilized" to protect downstream pipelines and storage, usually by adding lime or caustic soda to prevent corrosion of concrete-lined surfaces. Liming material is used to adjust pH between 6.8 and 8.1 to meet the potable water specifications, primarily for effective disinfection and for corrosion control. Remineralisation may be needed to replace minerals removed from the water by desalination. Although this process has proved to be costly and not very convenient if it is intended to meet mineral demand by humans and plants. The very same mineral demand that freshwater sources provided previously. For instance water from Israel’s national water carrier typically contains dissolved magnesium levels of 20 to 25 mg/liter, while water from the Ashkelon plant has no magnesium. After farmers used this water, magnesium deficiency symptoms appeared in crops, including tomatoes, basil, and flowers, and had to be remedied by fertilization. Current Israeli drinking water standards set a minimum calcium level of 20 mg/liter. The postdesalination treatment in the Ashkelon plant uses sulfuric acid to dissolve calcite (limestone), resulting in calcium concentration of 40 to 46 mg/liter. This is still lower than the 45 to 60 mg/liter found in typical Israeli freshwaters.


Post-treatment consists of preparing the water for distribution after filtration. Reverse osmosis is an effective barrier to pathogens, but post-treatment provides secondary protection against compromised membranes and downstream problems. Disinfection by means of ultra violet (UV) lamps (sometimes called germicidal or bactericidal) may be employed to sterilize pathogens which bypassed the reverse osmosis process. Chlorination or chloramination (chlorine and ammonia) protects against pathogens which may have lodged in the distribution system downstream, such as from new construction, backwash, compromised pipes, etc.[22]


Household reverse osmosis units use a lot of water because they have low back pressure. As a result, they recover only 5 to 15% of the water entering the system. The remainder is discharged as waste water. Because waste water carries with it the rejected contaminants, methods to recover this water are not practical for household systems. Wastewater is typically connected to the house drains and will add to the load on the household septic system. A reverse osmosis unit delivering five gallons (19 L) of treated water per day may discharge between 20 and 90 gallons (75–340 L) of waste water per day.[23] This is having disastrous consequence for mega cities like Delhi where large-scale use of household R.O. devices has increased the total water demand of the already water parched National Capital Territory of India.[24]

Large-scale industrial/municipal systems recover typically 75% to 80% of the feed water, or as high as 90%, because they can generate the high pressure needed for higher recovery reverse osmosis filtration. On the other hand, as recovery of wastewater increases in commercial operations, effective contaminant removal rates tend to become reduced, as evidenced by product water total dissolved solids levels.

Due to its fine membrane construction, reverse osmosis not only removes harmful contaminants present in the water, but it also may remove many of the desirable minerals from the water. A number of peer-reviewed studies have looked at the long-term health effects of drinking demineralized water.[25]


Depending upon the desired product, either the solvent or solute stream of reverse osmosis will be waste. For food concentration applications, the concentrated solute stream is the product and the solvent stream is waste. For water treatment applications, the solvent stream is purified water and the solute stream is concentrated waste.[26] The solvent waste stream from food processing may be used as reclaimed water, but there may be fewer options for disposal of a concentrated waste solute stream. Ships may use marine dumping and coastal desalination plants typically use marine outfalls. Landlocked reverse osmosis plants may require evaporation ponds or injection wells to avoid polluting groundwater or surface runoff.[27]

New developments[edit]

Since the 1970s, prefiltration of high-fouling waters with another larger-pore membrane, with less hydraulic energy requirement, has been evaluated and sometimes used. However, this means that the water passes through two membranes and is often repressurized, which requires more energy to be put into the system, and thus increases the cost.

Other recent developmental work has focused on integrating reverse osmosis with electrodialysis to improve recovery of valuable deionized products, or to minimize the volume of concentrate requiring discharge or disposal.

In the production of drinking water, the latest developments include nanoscale and graphene membranes.[28]

The world's largest RO desalination plant was built in Sorek, Israel in 2013. It has an output of 624,000 m³ (165 million U.S. gallons) a day.[29] It is also the cheapest and will sell water to the authorities for USD $0.58/m³.[30]

There is a newer method of reverse osmosis is called Closed Circuit Reverse Osmosis, also referred to as Closed Circuit Desalination. This reverse osmosis process can be characterized as a "semi batch" approach that uses 1 stage of membranes in a closed loop, compared with "traditional" reverse osmosis that typically requires 2 to 3 sequential stages of membranes before it can offer a what is considered to be a sufficient recovery rate.[31] Closed Circuit Reverse Osmosis results in significantly higher water recovery with less brine waste and lower energy consumption. [31] In the Closed Circuit Reverse Osmosis design, the membranes are arranged in parallel arrays, rather than sequentially as seen with other reverse osmosis designs. The technology is mainly being used for industrial and municipal water purification, brackish water desalination and wastewater reuse. Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola, Southern California Edison, Novelis and Pall Corporation use the technology. [32] The technology also being piloted at The Orange County Water District GWRS - the world's largest advanced water purification system of its kind for potable reuse. [33] as well as by Padre Dam in California, who is using Closed Circuit Reverse Osmosis in a Brine Minimization project. [34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcWarsinger, David M.; Tow, Emily W.; Nayar, Kishor G.; Maswadeh, Laith A.; Lienhard V, John H. (2016). "Energy efficiency of batch and semi-batch (CCRO) reverse osmosis desalination". Water Research. pp. 272–282. doi:10.1016/j.watres.2016.09.029. 
  2. ^ abCrittenden, John; Trussell, Rhodes; Hand, David; Howe, Kerry and Tchobanoglous, George (2005). Water Treatment Principles and Design, 2nd ed. John Wiley and Sons. New Jersey. ISBN 0-471-11018-3
  3. ^Glater, J. (1998). "The early history of reverse osmosis membrane development". Desalination. 117: 297–309. doi:10.1016/S0011-9164(98)00122-2. 
  4. ^Weintraub, Bob (December 2001). "Sidney Loeb, Co-Inventor of Practical Reverse Osmosis". Bulletin of the Israel Chemical Society (8): 8–9. 
  5. ^Cadotte, John E. (1981) "Interfacially synthesized reverse osmosis membrane" U.S. Patent 4,277,344
  6. ^2012 Annual Consumer Report on the Quality of Tap Water. City of Cape Coral
  7. ^Lachish, Uri. "Optimizing the Efficiency of Reverse Osmosis Seawater Desalination". guma science. 
  8. ^Knorr, Erik Voigt, Henry Jaeger, Dietrich (2012). Securing Safe Water Supplies : comparison of applicable technologies (Online-Ausg. ed.). Oxford: Academic Press. p. 33. ISBN 0124058868. 
  9. ^Council Directive of 15 July 1980 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters. eur-lex.europa.eu
  10. ^"Purification of Contaminated Water with Reverse Osmosis" ISSN 2250-2459, ISO 9001:2008 Certified Journal, Volume 3, Issue 12, December 2013
  11. ^Fuentes, Gidget (Nov 5, 2010). "Corps' plan for clean water downrange". Marine Corps Times. Retrieved 8 November 2010. 
  12. ^Shah, edited by Vishal (2008). Emerging Environmental Technologies. Dordrecht: Springer Science. p. 108. ISBN 1402087861. 
  13. ^Grabowski, Andrej (2010). Electromembrane desalination processes for production of low conductivity water. Berlin: Logos-Verl. ISBN 3832527141. 
  14. ^"Reverse Osmosis in wine filtration". Retrieved 2015-09-03. 
  15. ^"Government versus Gravity". Retrieved 2013-06-24. 
  16. ^Warsinger, David M.; Mistry, Karan H.; Nayar, Kishor G.; Chung, Hyung Won; Lienhard V, John H. (2015). "Entropy Generation of Desalination Powered by Variable Temperature Waste Heat". Entropy. pp. 7530–7566. doi:10.3390/e17117530. 
  17. ^International Desalination Association Yearbook 2012–13
  18. ^Israel is No. 5 on Top 10 Cleantech List in Israel 21c A Focus Beyond Retrieved 2009-12-21
  19. ^Desalination Plant Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) Plant. Water-technology.net
  20. ^Sauvetgoichon, B (2007). "Ashkelon desalination plant — A successful challenge". Desalination. 203: 75–81. doi:10.1016/j.desal.2006.03.525. 
  21. ^Malki, M. (2008). "Optimizing scale inhibition costs in reverse osmosis desalination plants"(PDF). International Desalination and Water Reuse Quarterly. 17 (4): 28–29. 
  22. ^Sekar, Chandru. "IEEE R10 HTA Portable Autonomous Water Purification System". IEEE. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
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  29. ^"Next Big Future: Israel scales up Reverse Osmosis Desalination to slash costs with a fourth of the piping". nextbigfuture.com. 19 February 2015. 
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Reverse osmosis production train, North Cape Coral Reverse Osmosis Plant
Disc tube module with RO membrane cushion and Spiral wound module with RO membrane
Schematics of a reverse osmosis desalination system using a pressure exchanger.
1: Sea water inflow,
2: Fresh water flow (40%),
3: Concentrate flow (60%),
4: Sea water flow (60%),
5: Concentrate (drain),
A: Pump flow (40%),
B: Circulation pump,
C: Osmosis unit with membrane,
D: Pressure exchanger
Schematic of a reverse osmosis desalination system using an energy recovery pump.
1: Sea water inflow (100%, 1 bar),
2: Sea water flow (100%, 50 bar),
3: Concentrate flow (60%, 48 bar),
4: Fresh water flow (40%, 1 bar),
5: Concentrate to drain (60%,1 bar),
A: Pressure recovery pump,
B: Osmosis unit with membrane

2.1 Desalination by reverse osmosis

Desalination is a separation process used to reduce the dissolved salt content of saline water to a usable level. All desalination processes involve three liquid streams: the saline feedwater (brackish water or seawater), low-salinity product water, and very saline concentrate (brine or reject water).

The saline feedwater is drawn from oceanic or underground sources. It is separated by the desalination process into the two output streams: the low-salinity product water and very saline concentrate streams. The use of desalination overcomes the paradox faced by many coastal communities, that of having access to a practically inexhaustible supply of saline water but having no way to use it. Although some substances dissolved in water, such as calcium carbonate, can be removed by chemical treatment, other common constituents, like sodium chloride, require more technically sophisticated methods, collectively known as desalination. In the past, the difficulty and expense of removing various dissolved salts from water made saline waters an impractical source of potable water. However, starting in the 1950s, desalination began to appear to be economically practical for ordinary use, under certain circumstances.

The product water of the desalination process is generally water with less than 500 mg/1 dissolved solids, which is suitable for most domestic, industrial, and agricultural uses.

A by-product of desalination is brine. Brine is a concentrated salt solution (with more than 35 000 mg/1 dissolved solids) that must be disposed of, generally by discharge into deep saline aquifers or surface waters with a higher salt content. Brine can also be diluted with treated effluent and disposed of by spraying on golf courses and/or other open space areas.

Technical Description

There are two types of membrane process used for desalination: reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodialysis (ED). The latter is not generally used in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the RO process, water from a pressurized saline solution is separated from the dissolved salts by flowing through a water-permeable membrane. The permeate (the liquid flowing through the membrane) is encouraged to flow through the membrane by the pressure differential created between the pressurized feedwater and the product water, which is at near-atmospheric pressure. The remaining feedwater continues through the pressurized side of the reactor as brine. No heating or phase change takes place. The major energy requirement is for the initial pressurization of the feedwater. For brackish water desalination the operating pressures range from 250 to 400 psi, and for seawater desalination from 800 to 1 000 psi.

In practice, the feedwater is pumped into a closed container, against the membrane, to pressurize it. As the product water passes through the membrane, the remaining feedwater and brine solution becomes more and more concentrated. To reduce the concentration of dissolved salts remaining, a portion of this concentrated feedwater-brine solution is withdrawn from the container. Without this discharge, the concentration of dissolved salts in the feedwater would continue to increase, requiring ever-increasing energy inputs to overcome the naturally increased osmotic pressure.

A reverse osmosis system consists of four major components/processes: (1) pretreatment, (2) pressurization, (3) membrane separation, and (4) post-treatment stabilization. Figure 16 illustrates the basic components of a reverse osmosis system.

Pretreatment: The incoming feedwater is pretreated to be compatible with the membranes by removing suspended solids, adjusting the pH, and adding a threshold inhibitor to control scaling caused by constituents such as calcium sulphate.

Pressurization: The pump raises the pressure of the pretreated feedwater to an operating pressure appropriate for the membrane and the salinity of the feedwater.

Separation: The permeable membranes inhibit the passage of dissolved salts while permitting the desalinated product water to pass through. Applying feedwater to the membrane assembly results in a freshwater product stream and a concentrated brine reject stream. Because no membrane is perfect in its rejection of dissolved salts, a small percentage of salt passes through the membrane and remains in the product water. Reverse osmosis membranes come in a variety of configurations. Two of the most popular are spiral wound and hollow fine fiber membranes (see Figure 17). They are generally made of cellulose acetate, aromatic polyamides, or, nowadays, thin film polymer composites. Both types are used for brackish water and seawater desalination, although the specific membrane and the construction of the pressure vessel vary according to the different operating pressures used for the two types of feedwater.

Stabilization: The product water from the membrane assembly usually requires pH adjustmentand degasification before being transferred to the distribution system for use as drinking water. The product passes through an aeration column in which the pH is elevated from a value of approximately 5 to a value close to 7. In many cases, this water is discharged to a storage cistern for later use.

Figure 16: Elements of the Reverse Osmosis Desalination Process.

Source: O.K. Buros, et. Al., The USAID Desalination Manual, Englewood, N.J., U.S.A., IDEA Publications.

Extent of Use

The capacity of reverse osmosis desalination plants sold or installed during the 20-year period between 1960 and 1980 was 1 050 600 m3/day. During the last 15 years, this capacity has continued to increase as a result of cost reductions and technological advances. RO-desalinated water has been used as potable water and for industrial and agricultural purposes.

Potable Water Use: RO technology is currently being used in Argentina and the northeast region of Brazil to desalinate groundwater. New membranes are being designed to operate at higher pressures (7 to 8.5 atm) and with greater efficiencies (removing 60% to 75% of the salt plus nearly all organics, viruses, bacteria, and other chemical pollutants).

Industrial Use: Industrial applications that require pure water, such as the manufacture of electronic parts, speciality foods, and pharmaceuticals, use reverse osmosis as an element of the production process, where the concentration and/or fractionating of a wet process stream is needed.

AgriculturalUse: Greenhouse and hydroponic farmers are beginning to use reverse osmosis to desalinate and purify irrigation water for greenhouse use (the RO product water tends to be lower in bacteria and nematodes, which also helps to control plant diseases). Reverse osmosis technology has been used for this type of application by a farmer in the State of Florida, U.S.A., whose production of European cucumbers in a 22 ac. greenhouse increased from about 4 000 dozen cucumbers/day to 7 000 dozen when the farmer changed the irrigation water supply from a contaminated surface water canal source to an RO-desalinated brackish groundwater source. A 300 l/d reverse osmosis system, producing water with less than 15 mg/1 of sodium, was used.

In some Caribbean islands like Antigua, the Bahamas, and the British Virgin Islands (see case study in Part C, Chapter 5), reverse osmosis technology has been used to provide public water supplies with moderate success.

In Antigua, there are five reverse osmosis units which provide water to the Antigua Public Utilities Authority, Water Division. Each RO unit has a capacity of 750 000 l/d. During the eighteen-month period between January 1994 and June 1995, the Antigua plant produced between 6.1 million l/d and 9.7 million l/d. In addition, the major resort hotels and a bottling company have desalination plants.

In the British Virgin Islands, all water used on the island of Tortola, and approximately 90% of the water used on the island of Virgin Gorda, is supplied by desalination. On Tortola, there are about 4 000 water connections serving a population of 13 500 year-round residents and approximately 256 000 visitors annually. In 1994, the government water utility bought 950 million liters of desalinated water for distribution on Tortola. On Virgin Gorda, there are two seawater desalination plants. Both have open seawater intakes extending about 450 m offshore. These plants serve a population of 2 500 year-round residents and a visitor population of 49 000, annually. There are 675 connections to the public water system on Virgin Gorda. In 1994, the government water utility purchased 80 million liters of water for distribution on Virgin Gorda.

In South America, particularly in the rural areas of Argentina, Brazil, and northern Chile, reverse osmosis desalination has been used on a smaller scale.

Figure 17: Two Types of Reverse Osmosis Membranes.

Source: O.K. Buros, et. al.. The USAID Desalination Manual, Englewood, N.J., U.S.A., IDEA Publications

Operation and Maintenance

Operating experience with reverse osmosis technology has improved over the past 15 years. Fewer plants have had long-term operational problems. Assuming that a properly designed and constructed unit is installed, the major operational elements associated with the use of RO technology will be the day-to-day monitoring of the system and a systematic program of preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance includes instrument calibration, pump adjustment, chemical feed inspection and adjustment, leak detection and repair, and structural repair of the system on a planned schedule.

The main operational concern related to the use of reverse osmosis units is fouling. Fouling is caused when membrane pores are clogged by salts or obstructed by suspended particulates. It limits the amount of water that can be treated before cleaning is required. Membrane fouling can be corrected by backwashing or cleaning (about every 4 months), and by replacement of the cartridge filter elements (about every 8 weeks). The lifetime of a membrane in Argentina has been reported to be 2 to 3 years, although, in the literature, higher lifespans have been reported.

Operation, maintenance, and monitoring of RO plants require trained engineering staff. Staffing levels are approximately one person for a 200 m3/day plant, increasing to three persons for a 4 000 m3/day plant.

Level of Involvement

The cost and scale of RO plants are so large that only public water supply companies with a large number of consumers, and industries or resort hotels, have considered this technology as an option. Small RO plants have been built in rural areas where there is no other water supply option. In some cases, such as the British Virgin Islands, the government provides the land and tax and customs exemptions, pays for the bulk water received, and monitors the product quality. The government also distributes the water and in some cases provides assistance for the operation of the plants.


The most significant costs associated with reverse osmosis plants, aside from the capital cost, are the costs of electricity, membrane replacement, and labor. All desalination techniques are energy-intensive relative to conventional technologies. Table 5 presents generalized capital and operation and maintenance costs for a 5 mgd reverse osmosis desalination in the United States. Reported cost estimates for RO installations in Latin American and the Caribbean are shown in Table 6. The variation in these costs reflects site-specific factors such as plant capacity and the salt content of the feedwater.

The International Desalination Association (IDA) has designed a Seawater Desalting Costs Software Program to provide the mathematical tools necessary to estimate comparative capital and total costs for each of the seawater desalination processes.

Table 5 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cost Estimates for RO Desalination Plants in Florida

a Includes amortization of capital, operation and maintenance, and membrane replacement.
b Values of $2.30 - $3.60 were reported in February 1994.

Effectiveness of the Technology

Twenty-five years ago, researchers were struggling to separate product waters from 90% of the salt in feedwater at total dissolved solids (TDS) levels of 1 500 mg/1, using pressures of 600 psi and a flux through the membrane of 18 l/m2/day. Today, typical brackish installations can separate 98% of the salt from feedwater at TDS levels of 2 500 to 3 000 mg/1, using pressures of 13.6 to 17 atm and a flux of 24 l/m2/day - and guaranteeing to do it for 5 years without having to replace the membrane. Today's state-of-the-art technology uses thin film composite membranes in place of the older cellulose acetate and polyamide membranes. The composite membranes work over a wider range of pH, at higher temperatures, and within broader chemical limits, enabling them to withstand more operational abuse and conditions more commonly found in most industrial applications. In general, the recovery efficiency of RO desalination plants increases with time as long as there is no fouling of the membrane.


This technology is suitable for use in regions where seawater or brackish groundwater is readily available.


The processing system is simple; the only complicating factor is finding or producing a clean supply of feedwater to minimize the need for frequent cleaning of the membrane.

Systems may be assembled from prepackaged modules to produce a supply of product water ranging from a few liters per day to 750 000 l/day for brackish water, and to 400 000 l/day for seawater; the modular system allows for high mobility, making RO plants ideal for emergency water supply use.

Installation costs are low.

RO plants have a very high space/production capacity ratio, ranging from 25 000 to 60 000 l/day/m2.

Low maintenance, nonmetallic materials are used in construction.

Energy use to process brackish water ranges from 1 to 3 kWh per 1 0001 of product water.

RO technologies can make use of use an almost unlimited and reliable water source, the sea.

RO technologies can be used to remove organic and inorganic contaminants.

Aside from the need to dispose of the brine, RO has a negligible environmental impact.

The technology makes minimal use of chemicals.


The membranes are sensitive to abuse.

The feedwater usually needs to be pretreated to remove particulates (in order to prolong membrane life).

There may be interruptions of service during stormy weather (which may increase particulate resuspension and the amount of suspended solids in the feedwater) for plants that use seawater.

Operation of a RO plant requires a high quality standard for materials and equipment.

There is often a need for foreign assistance to design, construct, and operate plants.

An extensive spare parts inventory must be maintained, especially if the plants are of foreign manufacture.

Brine must be carefully disposed of to avoid deleterious environmental impacts.

There is a risk of bacterial contamination of the membranes; while bacteria are retained in the brine stream, bacterial growth on the membrane itself can introduce tastes and odors into the product water.

RO technologies require a reliable energy source.

Desalination technologies have a high cost when compared to other methods, such as groundwater extraction or rainwater harvesting.

Cultural Acceptability

RO technologies are perceived to be expensive and complex, a perception that restricts them to high-value coastal areas and limited use in areas with saline groundwater that lack access to more conventional technologies. At this time, use of RO technologies is not widespread.

Further Development of the Technology

The seawater and brackish water reverse osmosis process would be further improved with the following advances:

Development of membranes that are less prone to fouling, operate at lower pressures, and require less pretreatment of the feedwater.

Development of more energy-efficient technologies that are simpler to operate than the existing technology; alternatively, development of energy recovery methodologies that will make better use of the energy inputs to the systems.

Commercialization of the prototype centrifugal reverse osmosis desalination plant developed by the Canadian Department of National Defense; this process appears to be more reliable and efficient than existing technologies and to be economically attractive.

Information Sources


John Bradshaw, Engineer and Water Manager, Antigua Public Utilities Authority, Post Office Box 416, Thames Street, St. Johns, Antigua. Tel/Fax (809)462-2761.

Chief Executive Officer, Crystal Palace Resort & Casino, Marriot Hotel, Post Office Box N 8306, Cable Beach, Nassau, Bahamas. Tel. (809)32- 6200. Fax (809)327-6818.

GeneralManager, Water and Sewerage Corporation, Post Office Box N3905, Nassau, Bahamas. Tel. (809)323-3944. Fax (809)322-5080.

Chief Executive Officer, Atlantis Hotel, Sun International, Post Office Box N4777, Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas. Tel. (809)363-3000. Fax (809)363-3703.

Vincent Sweeney, Sanitary Engineer, c/o Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI), Post Office Box 1111, Castries, Saint Lucia. Tel. (809)452-2501. Fax (809)453-2721. E-mail: cehi@isis.org.lc.

GuillermoNavas Brule, Ingeniero Especialista Asuntos Ambientales, Codelco Chile Div. Chuquicamata Fono, Calama, Chile. Tel. (56-56)32-2207. Fax (56-56)32-2207.

William T. Andrews, Managing Director, Ocean Conversion (BVI) Ltd, Post Office Box 122, Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Roberta Espejo Guasp, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Católica del Norte, Departamento Física, Av. Angamos 0610, Casilla de Correo 1280, Antofagasta, Chile. Tel. (56-55)24-1148 anexo 211-312-287. Fax (56-55)24-1724/24-1756. E-mail: respejo@socompa.cecun.ucn.cl.

María Teresa Ramírez, Ingeniero de Proyectos, Aguas Industriales, Ltda., Williams Rebolledo 1976, Santiago, Chile. Tel. (562)238-175S. Fax (562)238-1199.

Claudison Rodríguez, Economista, Instituto ACQUA, Rua de Rumel 300/401,22210-010 Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. Tel. (55-21)205-5103. Fax (55-51)205-5544. E-mail: solon@omega.encc.br.

Joseph E. Williams, Chief Environmental Health Officer, Environmental Health Department, Ministry of Health and Social Security, Duncombe Alley, Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands, BWI. Tel (809)946-2152/946-1335. Fax (809)946-2411.


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