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Posted: June 2, 2008

Shell creates nanofiltration water purification system for rural areas

(Nanowerk News) Many Shell operations in rural areas have no safe drinking water sources nearby. So Shell sought a water purification unit that would provide safe water, be vandalism proof and be essentially maintenance-free, with low-skilled operators able to carry out the limited maintenance tasks necessary.
Shell developed and installed a pilot unit for the production of freshwater from a contaminated source at a retail station in the Karoo Desert in South Africa. This unit, dubbed the Waterbox, replaced freshwater supplied from a town 80 km away. Apart from a contractor located in this town, no skilled personnel were available on site.
Placed in a six-meter isolated sea container, the Shell water purification unit can provide some 20 m 3 of clean drinking water per day (14 liters per minute). The heart of the process consists of novel, low-pressure hollow fiber nano-filtration membranes running in semi-dead-end-mode with an airflush enhanced forward flush with water fed in every 20 minutes to clean the membranes.
The Waterbox
The Waterbox
Based on the success of this demonstration unit, an improved, low-energy unit will be installed in Morocco, in the small rural village of Ait Chaib, outside the local center town of Afourer, 200 km north of Marrakech, in the Atlas mountain district. This settlement consists of some 500 inhabitants living in about 90 houses. The nearby groundwater sources were less suitable for human consumption due to a high concentration of bacteria.
The unit uses no hazardous chemicals; so its environmental impact is virtually zero, unlike other, state-of-the-art membrane systems, which need considerable amounts of acids and bases to keep the membranes clean and to sterilize the drinking water produced.
Shell intends to build a commercial model to distribute in Morocco. This would require a significant initial investment cost (120,000 - 150,000), which has been obtained by partnering with L'heure Joyeuse (a local NGO), Shell du Maroc Social Investment Fund and ONEP (Morocco's Office of Potable Water).
L'heure Joyeuse will pay 20% of the unit cost and will be the formal owner. The local government will work on getting buy-in from the local population and maintain the unit via a local champion who will be trained in its maintenance. ONEP will perform regular checks on the unit and water analysis, and intends to order more units once the first one demonstrates its success.
Shell has identified some main factors that will help determine how the company moves forward in this area:
  • Ensure communication and collaboration with local NGOs and governments
  • Healthy people can work, which leads to increased GDP, but to be healthy, they need clean water
  • Create curiosity: when one village has the water unit, others follow, demonstrating the importance of getting key people involved, such as teachers, religious figures, government representatives, etc.
  • Women's empowerment: in many of these areas, women are the workers and the housekeepers so the focus needs to be on them.
  • The success of the Waterbox in Morocco will largely depend on the effectiveness of the partnership. If successful, far more will follow via the link with ONEP, and there is a real chance that the program can be extended to Tunisia and Egypt. Shell Africa will play an active role in bringing it to the attention of other African countries.
    Water in rural areas can help develop agriculture, encouraging growth and development. If the new business model is successful, it will also be easily replicable worldwide. And because it does not need major maintenance, it overcomes the difficulty of long-distance monitoring.
    But there are challenges associated with such a concept, including the inappropriate use of clean water where it is not necessary: for cattle, house cleaning and washing. Staff also need to be trained to maintain and manage the water unit, and this comes with language, cultural and educational barriers.
    Source: World Business Council for Sustainable Development