Reverse osmosis enables large-scale desalination of seawater, efficiently transforming it into drinking water.
People have been trying to desalinate seawater into drinking water for millennia. Firstly, Aristotle and other ancient Greeks unsuccessfully attempted to desalinate seawater. Eventually, by the 16th century, ship-based evaporation desalination systems created potable water. In time, by 1955, the first multi-stage flash distillation (MSF) plant went online. It desalinated water but require distillation, consuming enormous amounts of time and energy.
Finally, in 1959, the first multi-effect distillation (MED) plant came online. This plant used a combination of industrial-scale reverse osmosis and filtering. Subsequently, the University of California innovated the synthetic reverse osmosis membrane. This brought together the building blocks of a modern desalination plant.
Reverse osmosis desalination methods were refined over the future decades. Particularly, the filters became vastly more efficient at filtering salt and other particulate matter from seawater with ever fewer amounts of electricity.
Eventually, as aquifers around the world run dry, desalination promises to help offset the use of natural potable water.
At this time, in 2019, Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination plant in the world. It features 8 evaporators, 17 reverse osmosis units, and produces 1 million cubic meters of drinking water every day.
Israel comes second, using 16-inch (40.5cm) membranes it produces 624,000 cubic meters of drinkable water per day. Thanks to this and other desalination plants, Israel generates more water than the country uses, using the excess to refill drained aquifers and the Sea of Galilee. A plant north of San Diego, in the US, will produce about 190,000 cubic meters of freshwater a day for Californian’s, who have suffered water rationing for years as aquifers ran dry.