Reusing Saudi Arabia’s precious water resources

A KAUST-developed anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) technology uses microorganisms to convert organic carbon into methane. Photo courtesy of Professor Peiying Hong / KAUST

KAUST Associate Professor Peiying Hong has developed a new innovative wastewater treatment method that uses less energy and renders water safe for agriculture. The technology is currently piloted with industry partner MODON (Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones) in Jeddah to reuse this precious water resource.

Water reuse is one of the objectives of Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia’s extreme climate requires it to maximise and reuse the most precious water resource. That includes wastewater. Increasing the use of treated wastewater reduces the need for desalinated water. Desalinated water is costly and energy intensive, leading to higher CO2 emissions. Future urban environments worldwide need to be more sustainable and recycle water more efficiently. This approach will help cope with a warmer climate and the water stress caused by growing populations.

Currently, most of Saudi Arabia’s treated wastewater is cleaned using aerobic processes. Oxygen is added to waste, breaking down organic matter. Chlorine is then added to disinfect the waste. However, a major issue with aerobic treatment is that it is energy-intensive. Additionally, chlorine-treated water cannot be used for agricultural needs.

Professor Hong’s new method uses an anaerobic process, employing anaerobic membrane bioreactor (AnMBR) technology that uses microorganisms to convert organic carbon into methane. Water is then filtered and disinfected using UV light and hydrogen peroxide. The output is clean water suitable for growing crops.

Partnering around precious water resources

Earlier this year, Hong partnered with MODON to turn a new technology prototype into a pilot program for anaerobic wastewater treatment. It is currently operational at MODON’s site in Jeddah. The pilot plant will treat 23,000 litres of wastewater per day. The biomass produced by the system can also be used as agricultural fertiliser.

Ahmed M. Al-Hilayel, Health and Environment Director at MODON, said, “The KAUST-MODON partnership supports small and medium-sized industrial enterprises across the Kingdom with new tech solutions for improving wastewater processes, bringing huge savings in energy consumption and treatment.”

The new system has a smaller site footprint than existing processing plants. It is also decentralised, which minimises energy costs related to distribution and transport. The technology has the potential to be deployed as a commercially viable and innovative decentralised wastewater treatment system. AnMBR could produce about 15% of the country’s agricultural water needs by one estimate. The technology could also be exported to other countries when it is proven.

AnMBR is an example of a practical technology developed by KAUST and the university’s ability to partner with major industrial players to implement technology at scale so it can be calibrated in real-world conditions.

“The relationship between KAUST and MODON is an excellent example of how universities and industrial partners can work together to solve challenges and improve existing processes and technology,” said Kevin Cullen, Vice President for KAUST Innovation.

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