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Katrina demonstrates growing demand for membrane water treatment according to McIlvaine research

NORTHFIELD, IL, Sept. 20, 2005 -- When Gulf Coast residents were left without a drinking water source in the aftermath of Katrina, Tularosa Basin National Desalination Research Facility sent its portable reverse osmosis (RO) membrane purification system to Biloxi, Miss., to provide drinking water to 40,000 local inhabitants. The unit can produce over 100,000 gallons per day of drinkable water from contaminated river water or from seawater. For additional details, see this website's "After Katrina" reports in the weeks following the disaster after the hurricane struck the area on Aug. 29.

Ironically, in this case, too much water in the wrong places created the need. But, usually, it's a case of water scarcity or -- more to the point -- not enough fresh water as driving demand for where these membrane purification systems are most likely to be needed.

With military missions in arid environments or humanitarian missions such as those following the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, the U.S. Defense Department is steadily increasing its RO capability to supply troops with drinkable water, with related research in just about every branch of the military including the U.S. Navy at its Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center. These efforts are often multi-agency projects such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Yuma Desalting Plant in Yuma, Ariz., which works in conjunction with military and civilian research agencies. They're also cooperative with local water utilities, such as the U.S. Army effort to lease land at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to El Paso Water Utilities to develop a brackish water desalination facility.

There also are major non-military projects in the continental United States to build membrane plants for emergency situations. The U.S. House of Representatives, for instance, has approved legislation to help find a site for an RO desalination plant to produce drinking water for the San Francisco Bay area. The desalination plant could produce 60 to 80 million gallons of drinking water a day. That's enough water to supply about 500,000 to 600,000 people, but it would likely be used as a backup supply during emergencies. Also, California's Proposition 50 is now funding a number of desalination resource development projects, both for water security and to reduce demands on the Colorado River. And Florida and Minnesota have both been involved in major membrane projects with the nation's largest desalination plant and largest ultrafiltration plant, respectively. This isn't even mentioning industrial and commercial applications.

As such, the sales of membrane systems worldwide will rise from $7 billion this year to $10 billion in 2009. These forecasts are reflected in the most recent updates of RO/UF/MF World Markets, an online forecasting service provided by the McIlvaine Company, a market research company specializing in the water and wastewater industry.

The lack of access to fresh drinking water together with the high incomes in the Middle East has resulted in a boom in the construction of new membrane desalination plants. But Saudi Arabia is only the third largest purchaser of RO membranes and equipment. The United States and Japan are first and second.

Asia suffers from a lack of water resources as well as contamination of the water which is available. Unreliable municipal water supplies have caused the middle and upper classes to purchase home RO systems despite the $1,000 selling price of systems offered in upscale department stores in major cities such as Shanghai. By 2009, the RO equipment and membrane market in Asia will exceed $2 billion/yr.

One of the highest growth sectors for cross-flow membrane systems is where filtration and biological treatment are combined. Membrane bioreactors provide sewage treatment in a compact system. There is double-digit growth in the use of these systems for small communities, residential developments, and resorts. Growth in the use of these systems to treat waste from food processing plants is growing at 20 percent per year.


The McIlvaine Company (www.mcilvainecompany.com) is based in Northfield, Ill.