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A comparative study of RO and MSF

desalination plants

Article in Desalination August 1996

DOI: 10.1016/S0011-9164(96)00097-5


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Ibrahim Al-Mutaz
King Saud University


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ELSEVIER Desalination 106 (1996) 99-106

A comparative study of RO and MSF desalination plants

Ibrahim S. Al-Mutaz
Chemical Engineering Department, College of Engineering, King Saud University,
PO Box 800, Riyadh 11421, Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 (1) 467-4254; E-mail: F45kOll@SAKWOO

Received 1.5 July 1995; Accepted 25 October 1995

The total capacity of operating and projected desalination plants in Saudi Arabia is 725.4 mgd (2.74 Mm3/d).
Reverse osmosis (RO) only accounts for about 10% of the total desalted capacity. However, there is a recent
trend toward the use of more RO in seawater desalination either for new plants or in connection with the present
multi-stage flash (MSF) plants. MSF is preferred for large-scale dual-purpose seawater desalination plants. For
single-purpose plants RO becomes a competitive choice, especially for moderate capacity. Power generation,
desalting capacity and fkel cost strongly influence the selection of the desalination process. Process schemes also
play an important role in this regard. MSF plants coupled with gas or steam turbines, RO with or without energy
recovery and ROh4SF hybrid are examples of possible process schemes. In Saudi Arabia the first MSF plant was
started in Al-wajh and Duba in 1928 with a capacity of 60,000 gpd (227.1 m3/d). The first seawater RO plant in
Saudi Arabia was installed in 1979. Recently numbers of RO and MSF plants were in production in different
locations in Saudi Arabia. A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of RO and MSF processes will be
given as well as a detailed comparison between them. Plant production and capacity and energy consumption will
be considered with reference to Saudi Arabia.

Keywords: Reverse osmosis; Multi-stage flash desalination

1. Introduction the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf as well as

maintaining the operating ones. It is planned to
Desalination in Saudi Arabia started in 1907. supply fresh water to coastal and inland cities
The first MSF plant was built in Doba and Al- and towns from the sea with ground waters as
Wajh in 1928 with a capacity of 60,000 gpd back-up. At present there are 22 desalination
(227.1 m3/d). In 1974 the Saline Water Conver- plants in operation with a design total capacity of
sion Corporation (SWCC) was established to 489.6 mgd (1.854 Mm3/d). Table 1 shows the
carry out the necessary feasibility and prelimi- total desalination projects in Saudi Arabia in
nary studies for installing desalination plants in operation or under construction operated by the

001 l-9164/96/$15.00 Copyright 0 1996 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
PII SO01 l-9164(96)00097-5
100 I.S. Al-Mutaz/ DesalinarionIO6 (1996) 99-106

Table 1
Major Saudi desalination plants

Plant Start-up mgd Installed capacity Type Chemical

year treatment

Water, m3/d Power, MW

In operation:
Hag1 II 1989 3,785 - -
Duba III 1989 3,785 - - -
Al-Wajh II 1979 0.125 473 - - -
Al-Wajh ext. 1 1986 0.218 825 - - -
Al-Wajh ext. 2 1989 0.273 1,032 - - -
Urn Lujj II 1986 3,785 - RO -
Rajigh I 1982 0.318 1,204 - - -
Aziziah I 1987 3,870 - - -
Al-Birk I984 0.500 1,952 - RO -
Farasan I 1979 0.114 430 - - -
Farasan ext. I 1984 0.284 1,075 - - -
Jeddah II 1978 10.000 10,000 71 DP, NSF, LT Acid
Jeddah III 1979 20.000 75,700 200 DP, MSF, LT Acid + add.
Jeddah IV 1982 50.000 189.250 500 DP, MSF, LT Acid
Jeddah RO (1) 1989 13.000 48,827 - RO Acid
Medinah-Yanbu I 1980 25.000 95,000 250 DP, MSF, CT Acid
Shoaibah I 1989 48.000 181,800 250 DP, MSF, CT Additive
Assir I 1989 20.000 75,700 45 DP, MSF, CT Additive
Al-Khafji II 1986 4.920 18,624 - SP, MSF, CT Additive
Al-Khoar II 1983 51.126 193,536 500 DP, :&SF, CT Additive
Al-Jubail I 1982 30.653 116,035 238 DP, MSF, CT Additive
AI-Jubail II 1983 211.036 798,864 812 DP, MSF, CT Additive

Under construction:
Medina-Yanbu II - 60.000 227,200 150 DP, MSF, CT Additive
Jeddah RO (2) - 15.000 56,800 - RO
AI-Jubail RO - 24.000 90,900 - RO Acid
Al-Khobar II - 74.000 280,000 467 - Additive
Shoaibah II - 120.000 455,000 515 DP, MSF, CT Additive

Source: Saline Water Conversion Corporation, Annual Report, Riyadh, 1992.

SWCC [ 11. The total capacity of those plants will than 24% of the world desalting units producing
be 725.4 mgd (2.747 Mm3/d). In a few years the more than 100 m3/d [2]. Most of the Saudi desa-
SWCCs total production of desalted water will lination plants are MSF, and these have a capaci-
be 811 mgd and 5200 MW. ty of more than 33% of the total world MSF
Saudi Arabia is the worlds largest producer desalting capacities. Saudi MSF plants accounted
of desalted water based on the 1992 statistics. It for more than 19% of the total number of NSF
has more than 30% of the total world desalting units.
units producing more than 4000 m3/d and more RO has about 17.8% of the total desalting
Table 2
Major Saudi RO desalination plants [3]

Plant Capacity, Membrane Membrane material, module Contracting Product Typical salinity, mg Completion
m3/d typea and manufacturer agencyb water TDS/l date

Water RO
source product

Brackish water:
Manfouha 27,300 HF PA (B-9), DuPont MOAW Portable 1470 200 1980
Manfouha II 36,400 HF PA (B-9), DuPont MOAW Portable 1470 200 1980
Malez 18,200 HF PA (B-9), DuPont MOAW Portable 1470 200 1980 $
Shemessy 27,300 HF PA (B-9), DuPont MOAW Portable 1470 200 1980
Salbukh 38,400 HF PA (B-9), DuPont MOAW Portable 1470 200 1979 8
Buwayb 45,000 SW CA, ROGA, 8 1505, UOP MOAW Portable 1400 200 1980 Na
Majmaah 3,800 SW Hydranautics MOAW Portable 1978
Jubail 15,000 SW CD&T, Hydranautics RCJY Portable 270&4400 365 1980 $-
Dhahran 3,500 HF PA Aramco Portable 2700 300 1982 &
Berri 6,800 HF Aramco Boiler feed- 1977 g
water 2
Shedgum 5,300 HF PA (B-9), DuPont Aramco Boiler feed- 1800 9-11 1979
water %
Makkah 15,000 HF MODA Portable 1983 2
1979 %
Riyadh 4,500 SW MODA Portable *
Seawater: ?
Jeddah 12,000 SW PA(TFC), 1501 PA, UOP swcc Portable 42,000 < 1,000 1979 %
Al-Birk 2,300 HF Aramid: (B-lo), (B-9): DuPont swcc Portable 40,00&58,000 980 1982
Umm Lujj II 4,400 SW PA(TFC),lSOl PA,8600 PA, UOP swcc Portable 41,392 < 200 1985
Bahrain 38,000 HF Aramid: (B-lo), (B-9): DuPont swcc Portable 45,000 450 1991
Jeddah I 57,000 CTA, HOLLOSEP, HM9255, FI, swcc Portable 43,000 <l,OOO 1990
Yanbu 5,000 HF Aramid: (B-lo), (B-9): DuPont RCJY Portable 51,000 < 500 1981
Jeddah 2,300 HF MODA Portable 1983
Ras Tanura 2,300 Aramco Portable 1983

aHF, hollow fiber; SW, spiral wound; PA, polyamide; CA, cellulose acetate; CD&T, cellulose diacetate and triacetate.
bMOAW, Ministry of Agricultural and Water; RCJY, Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu; MOUA, Ministry of Urban Affairs; MODA, Ministry of
Defense and Aviation. 0
102 I.S. AlNutaz / Desalination 106 (1996) 99-106

capacity of plants producing more than l-l .12 ppm after the filters. Then 6 ppm of sodi-
4000 m3/d and about 32.6% of those producing um bisulfite is added to remove the residual
more than 100 m3/d according to the 1992 sta- chlorine. Umm Lujj and Jeddah RO plants use
tistics [2]. In 1970 RO plants were commercially UOP thin-film composite (TFC) spiral wound
used in seawater desalting. The first large munic- (SW) type membranes while Al-Birk has a
ipal RO desalting plant with a 470 m3/d DuPont poly~id {PA) with the hollow-one fiber
(150,000 gpd) capacity was in Greenfield, Iowa (HFF) configuration.
(USA) and was built in 1973. The largest seawa-
ter RO plant is in Bahrain with a capacity of 2.2. Coagulation-flocculation-jiltration
38 mgd; it was built by the SWCC of Saudi
Arabia. Table 2 shows the major Saudi RO plants Ferric chloride, Manifold 537C, alum and
131. polymers are the typical coagulants used at the
prefilter stage. A gravity filter with different sand
particle sizes is then used. To obtain a satisfacto-
2. RO MSF process description ry silt density index, a fine cartridge filter is used
after sand filtration.
The RO process consists of three main steps: Umm Lujj uses no coagulants. Magniflo~
(1) pretreatment, (2) membrane passage, and 537C is used in the Al-Birk RO plant at a rate of
(3) posttreatment. In the posttreatment step prod- l-2 ppm. In the Jeddah RO plant, alum
uct water passes through a decarbonation system, (O-10 ppm) and polymer (O-l ppm) are used.
a pH adjustment system, and chlorine injection to
comply with the required quality and use of the
product water. 2.3. Softening and ~nt~sc~l~~g
The purpose of the pretreatment step is to Sulfuric acid is used to prevent carbonate
avoid any risk of clogging, fouling or scaling of scale. About 120 ppm, 70 ppm and 50 ppm of
the membrane. Pretreatment is an important as- sulfuric acid are used in Umm Lujj, Jeddah and
pect of RO systems. All RO devices required Al-Birk RO plants. Sodium hexameta-phosphate
pretreatment to remove the suspended solids, is dosed at a rate of 2-4 ppm in Jeddah and
sealants, foulants, and colloidal matter. Umm Lujj RO plants.
Hassan [4] described three of the major Saudi
RO plants outlining the pretreatment and post-
2.4. Posttreatment
treatment used. They are summarized below.
Calcium hydroxide with a concentration of
30-40 ppm is added to the product water to ad-
2. I. Disi~fe~ii~~
just the alkalinity. Chlorine is also added to elim-
Chlorine is often used to disinfect feed water. inate the presence the microorganisms during
To eliminate the danger of membrane damage by storage and distribution.
chlorine, copper sulfate is sometimes used. How- In the membrane passage section, high recov-
ever, residual chlorine must be removed. Sodium ery RO can be achieved by a high pressure oper-
bisulfate may be used to dechlorinate the feed ation which is made possible by the high pressure
water. capabilities of Aramids HFF membranes. These
In the Umm Lujj and Jeddah RO plants, feed membranes significantly reduce the effect of
water is disinfected with a dose of 0.5 ppm and concentration polarization since they have rela-
1 ppm of chlorine and copper sulfate, respective- tively low fluxes [5].
ly. About 4 ppm of chlorine is added to feed PA and CA are widely used in the production
water in the Al-Birk RO plant at the intake and of membranes for the RO industry. Aramid poly-


Fig. 1. Arrangement of reverse osmosis modules.

merS are replacing CA polymers in membrane fef or in series. Fig. t shows a possible arrange-
manufac~ring because they resist mechanicat ment of RO modules,
changes, as well as chemical and biological at- Fig, 2 shows the MSF process which has three
tack [6]. Since CA membranes are susceptible to distinct sections: heat rejection, heat recovery and
chemical attack, they must be used within a nar- brine heater. The feed water (WT) passes through
row pH range to prevent hydrolysjs. Permasep the heat rejection and heat recovery sections.
B-10 permeat~rs {DuPont Corp., ModeI, etc.) On leaving the first (warmest) rejection stage,
operating at 55-70 Kg/cm2 (@N-l000 psig) the feed stream is split into two parts - reject
pressures in seawater applications have per- seawater (CW) which passes back to the sea and
formed longer than 4 y without replacement. a make-up stream (F) which is then combined
Several types of RO membranes are comma- with the recycle stream (R). The combined
cially available. These are prepared either as flat stream (W) now passes through a series of heat
sheets or as hollow fibers from CA ester or aro- exchangers, its temperature rising as it proceeds
matic PAS. There are different ways of packing towards the heat input section of the plant. Pass-
RO membranes. Of these, three configurations ing through the brine heater the brine temperature
have been produced commerciaI~y: spiral wound, is raised from TF, at the inlet of the brine heater
tubular, and hollow Fine fiber. to a maximum varue of TB, approximately equal
RO plants are formed by cornb~n~~ga large ta the saturation temperature at system pressure.
number of membrane modules arranged in paral- The brine then enters the first heat recovery
104 1.X AMiiitaz I desalination 106 (I996) 99-106

Reject seawater

7 c:4

Recovev Section Rejection Section

Recycle Brine

Fig. 2. Simplified MSF process flow.

stage through an orifice, thus reducing the pres- 9.7 kWh of electric power is consumed in a 30%
sure. As the brine was already at its saturation recovery RO plant per 1 m3 of produced water
temperature for a higher pressure, it will become without energy recovery. If an energy recovery
superheated and flashes to give off water vapor. turbine of 80% efficiency is used, the energy
This vapor passes through a wire mesh (demister) requirement will fall to 6.5 kWh/m3 [7].
to remove any Lztrained brine droplets and on to Assuming an average operating value for RO
a heat exchanger (as shown in the figure) where and MSF, Der Mast (81 evaluated the capital
the vapor is condensed and drips into a distillate costs of these processes per plant capacity as
tray. The process is then repeated all the way illustrated in Fig. 3. These assumptions are:
down the plant as both brine-and distillate enter .
For RO:
the next stage which is at a lower pressure. The
Raw seawater TDS: 35,000 mg/l
concentrated brine is divided into two parts as it
Maximum feed pressure: 1000 psi
leaves the plant, the blow-down (BD) which is
Conversion factor: 35%
pumped back to the sea and a recycle stream (R)
Membrane life: 5 y
which returns to mix with the make-up stream
No energy recovery
(F). Electrical energy consumption: 8.5 kWh/m3

For MSF:
3. Economical and technical, comparison
Raw seawater TDS: 350 mg/l
MSF plants often use low pressure steam as Maximum brine temperature: 96C
an energy source. The energy consumption in Performance ratio: 8
MSF plants depends on the distillate flow rate Electrical power: 4 kWh/m3
and plant performance ratio. Typically 3.7 kWh Scale inhibitors for scale control
are consumed in large MSF plants per 1 m3 of Recycle type plant
produced water. Dual-purpose plant
RO plants are operated by electrical power to
derive the high pressure pumps and other plant Based on the values for a plant of 100,000 t/d,
auxiliaries, mainly the pretreatment processes. the capital and product costs are $190,000,000
RO power consumption depends mainly on water and $1.55/t for MSF and $170,000,000 and
recovery and working pressure. Typically $1.24/t for RO.
I.S. Al-h4utaz / Desalination IO6 (1996) 99-106 105

2400 pared as the four possible schemes. They found

2300 that RO achieved the lowest water cost of the
2200 four schemes considered at the base conditions.
2100 The economic advantages of RO may be lost if
2000 the membrane replacement rate exceeds about
1900 25% of the installed membrane capacity per year
1800 [lo]. They also mentioned that if low-cost fuel is
1700 available such as associated natural gas, dual-
1600 purpose MSF plants are the optimum choice.
1500 I j 1
However, the introduction of RO with MSF will
1400 \
I reduce water costs to fuel cost variations.
10 20 30 40 50 ) 70 80 90 100 The hybrid RO/MSF plant offers, in fact,
additional advantages such as a decreased post-
Plant capacity, 000 m3/day
treatment cost and improved water quality by
Fig. 3. Total capital costs [S]. blending distillate and RO permeate as well as
greater flexibility and more efficient operation in
Darwish et al. [9] found that for a 6 mgd dual-purpose plants [ 11j. Hybrid plants allow a
plant, the MSF capital and product cost are better match between power and water require-
$84,350,000 and $2.332/m3 and the RO capital ments. Awerbuch [ 121 found a significant reduc-
and product costs are $41 ,OOO,OOOand $1.448/ tion in capital and operating costs in hybrid RO1
m3, respectively. They also listed some technical MSF seawater desalination plants for a given
differences between RO and MSF which can be water production.
summarized by the following: Finally, the benefits of RO vs MSF can be
stated as:
1. Seawater intake in MSF is twice that of
l RO flexibility to meet various water and pow-
er ratios while maintaining maximum process
2. Energy consumption per cubic meters in
MSF is about three times that of RO.
l fewer corrosion problems in RO than MSF
3. Volume and area required for MSF are
l lower energy consumption in RO than MSF
large compared to those required for RO.
4. Pumping energy in RO is about 25% of In conclusion, at the present low fuel cost
that required for MSF. A possible decrease in MSF will continue to be the optimum choice for
pumping consumption in RO might be while large desalting plants. For moderate capacities,
using energy recovery systems. RO offers low water cost. RO would be the cor-
5. RO has no thermal energy consumption, In rect selection if fuel costs are increased. In any
6 mgd MSF about 89 MW of thermal energy is case an ROLMSF hybrid plant is worth consider-
consumed. This can be very expensive if not ing. It gives the lowest possible water cost if the
extracted from the steam turbine. MSF dual plant is associated with a gas turbine.
6. Heavy foundation and extensive civil work
is required by MSF due to its heavy weight.
Wade et al. [lo] examined the economics of
MSF coupled to gas turbine or back pressure PI Saline Water Conversion Corporation, Annual
Report, 1993.
steam turbine power plants and compared their
PI K. Wangnick, 1992 IDA worldwide desalting
costs with seawater RO for typical operating plants inventory, Report No. 12, IDA and Wang-
conditions. Also an RO/MSF hybrid was com- nick Consulting, April 1992.
106 IS. Al-Mutaz / Desalination 106 (1996) 99-106

[3] A.M. El-Rehaili, AWWA, [vol. #] (1991) 72. desalination processes, Saudi Arabia Bechtel
[4] A.M. Hassan et al., Performance evaluation of Company, June 1994.
SWCC SWRO plants, Proc., 4th World Congress [9] M.A. Darwish, M.A. Jawad and G.S. Aly, Desa-
on Desalination and Water Reuse, Kuwait, 1989. lination, 76 (1989) 281.
[5] S. Sourirajan and T. Matsuura, eds., Reverse [lo] N.M. Wade, R. Heaton and D.G. Boulter, Desali-
Osmosis and Ultrafiltration, Symp. Ser. 281, nation, 55 (1985) 373.
ACS, Washington, DC, 1985. [11] B. Ericsson and B. Hallmans, Desalination, 55
[6] H.W. Pohland, Desalination, 32 (1980) 157. (1985) 441.
[7] N.M. Wade, Comparison of MSF and RO in [12] L. Awerbuch, S. May, R. Soo-Hoo and V.V. Der
dual-purpose plants, Paper presented at Saline Mast, Desalination, 76 (1989) 189.
Water Conversion Corporation, Riyadh, Saudi [ 131 D. Brandt and R. Battey, Dual-purpose desalting
Arabia, 1986. RO vs. MSF: An economic comparison, 10th
[8] V.V. Der Mast and S. May, Comparison of Annual Conference - SW, Honolulu, 1982.

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