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Reverse osmosis desalination: Water sources, technology, and today's challenges

Reverse osmosis membrane technology has developed over the past 40 years to a 44% share in world desalting production capacity, and an 80% share in the total number of desalination plants installed worldwide. The use of membrane desalination has increased as materials have improved and costs have decreased. Today, reverse osmosis membranes are the leading technology for new desalination installations, and they are applied to a variety of salt water resources using tailored pretreatment and membrane system design.



Two distinct branches of reverse osmosis desalination have emerged: seawater reverse osmosis and brackish water reverse osmosis. Differences between the two water sources, including plants, salinity, waste brine (concentrate) disposal options, and plant location, have created significant differences in process development, implementation, and key technical problems. Pretreatment options are similar for both types of reverse osmosis and depend on the specific components of the water source. Both brackish water and seawater reverse osmosis (RO) will continue to be used worldwide; new technology in energy recovery and renewable energy, as well as innovative plant design, will allow greater use of desalination inland and rural communities, while providing more affordable water for large coastal cities. A wide variety of research and general information on RO desalination is available; however, a direct comparison of seawater and brackish water RO systems is necessary to highlight similarities and differences in process development. This article brings to light key parameters of an RO process and process modifications due to feed water characteristics.