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 to use for agriculture. The technology is currently being piloted with industry partner MODON (Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones) in Jeddah.

Water reuse is one of the objectives of Vision 2030. Saudi Arabia's climate is extreme, and requires it to maximize and reuse its most precious resource – water. That includes wastewater. Increasing the use of treated wastewater reduces the need for desalinated water, which is costly to produce and very energy intensive, leading to higher CO2 emissions. Future urban environments around the world will need to be more sustainable and recycle water more efficiently to cope with a warmer climate and the water stress caused by growing populations. 

At present, most of Saudi Arabia's treated wastewater is cleaned using an aerobic process. Oxygen is added to waste, which breaks down organic matter. Chlorine is then added to disinfect the waste. However, a major issue with aerobic treatment is that it is energy-intensive, and 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.

Portrait of KAUST Associate Professor Peiying Hong, whose research in wastewater ecosystems is helping to improve water treatment processes. Photo: KAUST

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

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 and is decentralized, which minimizes energy costs related to distribution and transport. The technology has the potential to be deployed as a commercially viable and innovative decentralized wastewater treatment system. By one estimate, AnMBR could produce about 15% of the country's agricultural water needs. 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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