The Gulf’s most successful MSF contractor of recent years is convinced that MED is the future of thermal
desalination. How can the technical and political challenges that hold it back be overcome?
South Korean engineer Doosan has thrown its weight behind multipleeffect distillation as the solution to thermal desal needs in the Middle East – even as the company is locked in a vicious battle with rival EPC contractor Fisia for the latest MSF plant in the Middle East.
Doosan has established a dominance in Saudi Arabia – the region’s largest desal market – winning contracts to build desalination capacity amounting to a total of nearly 3 million cubic metres a day (see chart, below right). The foundation of its success has been the MSF units that supplied a string of large power and water plants procured by the Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) since 1993.
Earlier this month, it started transportation of the first MSF unit for the Ras Al- Khair project, the world’s largest desalination plant, from the company’s production facility in Changwon, Korea. But despite its success the company now has big plans to pursue MED – which offers lower energy demands and easier operating requirements – for future projects.
Doosan’s Europe, Middle East and North Africa managing director Hyun- Sang Ahn admitted the company was surprised MED had not yet taken off as the technology of choice in Saudi Arabia. “Before Ras Al-Khair, even we thought that MED would be more competitive,” he told GWI.
One reason for the lack of development on MED in Saudi Arabia is the conservative approach of offtaker SWCC. On the most recent large desalination tender to come to the market – the 550,000m3/d Yanbu 3 pro- ject on the Red Sea coast – SWCC required MED bidders to use titanium for all internal pipes on their design. This requirement – seen as unnecessary by some experts – made MED uncompetitive on capital cost.
Doosan is one of two MSF bidders waiting for a decision on Yanbu 3. It was heavily undercut by Fisia Italimpianti on a quote for the plant in July, but a final decision from client SWCC has proved elusive.
MED also faces technical challenges in the Kingdom. Ahn told GWI that MED had been held back from dominating the thermal desal market because the need to use more units to reach the same capacity made it harder to fit into the geographically restricted areas available for many new desalination developments.
2011 will mark the start of operations at the experimental 15MIGD (68,190m3/d) single-unit MED plant in Yanbu, the contract for which was awarded earlier this year. With the project weighing in at almost twice the size of the current largest MED unit, Doosan claims it will be a game-changer for thermal desal technology. It went as far as financing the $124 million Yanbu unit itself through a combination of debt and equity, in exchange for an agreement from SWCC to buy back the unit once it had been proved operationally.
Referring to Doosan’s decision to take on the financial risk at Yanbu, Ahn said: “Even the client couldn’t believe that. We are waiting until we produce the required water perfectly, and then we will see the money. It’s due to switch over to government operation at the end of next year.”
The company says the mega-unit project means it is less than two years away from being able to implement multipleeffect distillation (MED) desalination on the same scale as the MSF mega-projects that made it one of the most successful EPC contractors in the Middle East. “We want to bring the competitive edge we have in MSF to all three types of desalination [MSF, MED and RO],” Ahn said.