The membranes used in most Spanish desalination plants are the heart of the desalination plant. They are produced primarily by American and Japanese companies, though some institutions in Spain have begun undertaking research into membrane production. Spanish companies, however, have developed the parts to fill many of the needs in these large-scale plants around the world. The Spanish Desalination and Reutilization Association counts nearly 60 companies as members, all involved in some aspect of desalination, from producing filters and valves to the large companies that build the plants.
Along the northern coast of Spain, the land is lush and green, a visual contrast to the parched areas of the south. The cities and towns around the industrial city of Bilbao form Spain's most concentrated industrial corridor, with a large number of metal foundries and manufacturing plants.
Though this area can provide for its water needs without desalination technology, nevertheless a number of companies have specialized in meeting the needs of desalination. Desalinating seawater involves particular engineering challenges, including dealing with the high corrosivity of the water and the extremely high pressure needed to force the water through the membrane.
One of the companies in the north, MTS Valves, makes high-pressure valves for all sorts of mechanical needs. As the desalination industry grew, it began developing the needed valves, then specialized in the valves of the noncorrosive alloys of stainless steel called duplex and superduplex that are very expensive and difficult to cast. The fact that there are two foundries in the Bilbao region that work with this metal has proven to be a boon for local companies.
Says Jose Ignacio de la Fuente, factory manager of MTS Valves, "We have been in this market for more than 30 years. We are the European leaders in this market, supplying valves to plants around the world, - to Israel, Singapore, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria. We are in the position to guarantee a first-class product by working with our suppliers." De la Fuente says MTS Valves continues to research ways to optimize the performance of the valves, aiding in reducing the overall cost of water production.
Indar Maquinas Hidraulicas (Indar Hydraulic Machines) has also been able to take advantage of the local availability of duplex and superduplex alloys to create submersible motors and high-pressure hydraulic pumps for the intake of seawater from beach wells or intake tanks. Originally a family-owned business that began in 1940 manufacturing small motors for area companies, the company began to focus on submersible motors and pumps when desalination began in Spain in the 1960s.
As the market developed, Indar continued making pumps for other water-treatment plants while honing its desalination niche by working with these challenging alloys. Taking it one step further, Indar has now created an even more specialized niche by focusing on pumps and engines of larger diameter, suitable for the newer large desalination plants. Recent research has led the company to develop a pump and motor that saves enough energy to recoup the cost of the new pump in only one year.
"We design the systems to stay competitive, to reduce power consumption as much as possible," says Marcos Garcia, sales manager of Indar.
In desalination, a crucial factor is pretreatment, cleaning the water to the highest level possible before it reaches the reverse-osmosis membranes, the most important, expensive, and delicate part of the entire operation. The purer the water, the longer the membranes last and the more effective they remain.
Fluytec, a company based near Bilbao, creates filter systems for the second level of treatment in a desalination plant. Its filters, which look like long cylinders of wound yarn, are cased inside a cylindrical housing. To innovate and distinguish itsselve in this market, Fluytec has developed a method of building the casing out of noncorrosive fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP), which unlike PVC can withstand high-water pressures at much larger sizes. In the case of large-scale plants, the FRP filters must be laid out and layered by hand, a task that few companies are able to accomplish.
In addition, Fluytec has developed a new system for replacing filters in extremely large plants, mechanizing the process whereby filters are cleaned or replaced. "In the past it was done by hand. With this new system, filters will be off-duty for only a short time," says Jorge Merlo, in charge of international sales for Fluytec.
Dozens of other Spanish companies have developed expertise in niche markets in desalination, marketing their products within Spain and around the world.