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Fresh water from the sea

Michael Becker, spoke to CCME about the finer details & long-term implications of the technology to explore & tap sub-marine spring water.

| | Feb 9, 2012 | 1:05 pm
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Michael Becker, Area Manager, Nymphea Environnement, spoke to B Surendar during the World Future Energy Summit about the finer details and long-term implications of the technology to explore and tap sub-marine spring water.

Nymphea Environnement, a company with knowledge of the sea and expertise in oceanographic surveys, is focused on exploring for undersea freshwater springs and judiciously tapping it, with what it claims to be a unique technology.

Freshwater springs

Michael Becker

Michael Becker

“Undersea springs can be found all over the world, especially where the subsoil geological formations are limestone or volcanic rock,” Michael Becker explains. “It is freshwater flowing freely into the sea. Most undersea freshwater springs were once land springs, which were submerged when sea levels rose. Gravity naturally pulls this water down to the lowest possible point, often below sea level. However, freshwater being not as dense as saltwater, naturally rises and creates a detectable impact due to thermal anomaly at the surface, as it flows freely into the sea. The flow of water is 1.5 cubic metres per second.”

Becker points out that for hundreds of years, sailors have known about freshwater springs at sea. Now, divers and fishermen also know where they can be found. The teams at Nymphea Environnement carry out local surveys to gather this information.

A vital source of drinking water

Becker posits the view that this water is well-suited for human consumption and can ease the stress caused by water shortage in areas where the only solution up till now has been seawater desalination. “Till recently, there was no technology to collect this water,” he says. “Attempts to collect it had not met with success due to seawater intrusion into the freshwater aquifer during the process of pumping it. And excessive pumping results in an increase in contamination by seawater.”

Becker claims that Nymphea Environnement, with continued research and exploration, has developed an array of technologies, protected by international patents, to tap this abundant source of freshwater, without causing seawater intrusion and contamination.

How the technology works

“Every individual spring has specific physical and chemical characteristics that have a detectable impact on the marine environment, and we have therefore, consistently improved the methods to explore for and study undersea freshwater springs for the last 15 years,” he says.

Becker explains that the process of exploration is divided into three phases: Phase 1 assesses the real potential of finding undersea freshwater springs in a given geographical area. This involves local and geological surveys. The results of these analyses are used to pinpoint areas for further and more precise exploration, leading to analysing satellite data based on observation of major events generated by thermal phenomena and biological activity. Then, an aerial survey is conducted. To detect these temperature differences, Nymphea Environnement uses aircraft equipped with multi-spectral cameras to scan, especially in infrared ranges. The aerial survey provides an overall mapping of the marine area studied, in which every anomaly is geo-referenced.

In Phase 2, an exploration at sea is carried out, mainly using acoustic devices. Variations in salinity at the surface and within the water column create interfaces, which are detected from an oceanographic research ship fitted with special equipment, as well as divers and robots. Three-dimensional sonar imaging systems and geophysics equipment are used to generate data of the area surrounding the undersea freshwater spring. The second phase ends with sampling and analysis of the spring water discovered, and measuring outflow rates.

In Phase 3, quantitative and qualitative studies are conducted to determine the freshwater spring’s potential and the parameters necessary to start production. Flow rates, salinity and morphology are some of the data required to design the collection system. This also makes it possible to assess variations in outflow rates related to rainfall on land and to determine spring water quality. The country’s geographical location and the influence of the seasons on the spring are factored in to create a digital hydrogeological model. The model is used in conjunction with technical and financial analyses to define the future cost of production.

“The complete study will last two years and will cost a few million euros,” says Becker. “We can cut the cost by partnering with local authorities and universities and use local aircraft. The risk is in the first phase, only in the form of capital investment. Also, since due to long experience, local fishermen are generally aware of the location of sub-marine springs, their help can be sought.”

The environmental implications

According to Nymphea Environnement, the production technology used to tap sub-marine spring water is in harmony with nature. The system collects only the volume of water that is previously dispersed in the ocean, without disturbing the hydrological balance that have existed for thousands of years, it claims.

“To protect the environment, the company uses technology that draws on natural energy, such as buoyancy, hydraulic head and gravity,” says Becker. “Also, our system acts as a brake, since it has two modules.”

Highlighting this, he explains that the stainless steel structure designed is split into two units. The first one insures the water tightness around the spring, and avoids contamination by sea water, while the second unit is a pressure and overflow management system that hydromechanically regulates different parameters in real time.

Becker sums up the issue by saying, “Zero energy is used to harvest the water, which ensures a low and stable water selling price, zero greenhouse gas emission, so it is eligible to Emissions Trading Schemes, and zero impact on the neighbouring areas, as there are no side costs to integrate.”

What it means to the region

Seen through the prism of the region’s water problems and the cost of producing potable water, Nymphea Environnement believes that sub-marine freshwater springs can be a perennial source of water in the region. Realising that it can prove to be a win-win situation, it is attempting to co-opt local authorities and expertise to help make exploring and exploiting the water source a viable proposition.

Locating undersea springs and tapping freshwater constitute a real solution to the shortage of water, as it is suitable for human consumption, believes Becker.

To this end, the company has made forays into the region. “Water into the Arabian Gulf comes from Iran, where you have precipitation on mountains, and comes directly to the UAE,” says Becker. “And it comes under the sea, because the Arabian Gulf is shallow. With this phenomenon, we have seen 100 litres to 500 litres of water flow per second. And in Syria, we have seen 5m3 flow per second in a sub-marine spring. That is 50 million litres a day. And a person needs 250 litres per day, which means the water available is more than enough.”

Juxtaposing the cost of sub-marine water against desalinated water, Becker adds: “In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it costs SR 5 per cubic metre to desalinate water, whereas we can get it at SR 1 per cubic metre. So, with this technology, as long as we can find the springs, we can achieve the right costs. In fact, we have been working in Qatar for two years with the Supreme Council (now, Ministry of Environment, Qatar).”

Nymphea Environnement believes that the real cost is only at the stage of exploration, where ministries will have to pitch in to finance the research, as successful outcome of such surveys also depends on close collaboration with local authorities and experts.

If, indeed, Nymphea Environnement’s technology proves to be all that it claims to be, with its attendant benefits, in the long run, it might prove to be a sound investment.

Michael Becker, Area Manager, Nymphea Environnement, spoke to B Surendar during the World Future Energy Summit about the finer details and long-term implications of the technology to explore and tap sub-marine spring water.

New technology to tap sub-marine springs
The Middle East holds potential, says Nymphea Environnement, which exhibited the concept at WFES 2012.Claiming it to be a new technology to harvest fresh water from the sub-marine springs in the sea, Nymphea Environnement, a French company, participated in the WFES, held from January 16 to 19 in Abu Dhabi. The company further claimed that the water obtained was three to six times cheaper than the water from desalination plants.

The company pointed out that like common surface springs, numerous submarine have existed for thousands of years all over the world, sometimes deep and sometimes at just a few metres from the coast, which can yield huge volumes of hitherto untapped natural resources. It revealed that studies had confirmed that the GCC region, too, had several such possible sources of water. For example, it had discovered a spring in Syria that has a flow of 5,000 litres of water per second, which can meet the consumption demand for a city of 1,000,000 people.

Nymphea Environnement said that Pierre Becker, a French geologist, former commercial diver and offshore construction company owner and his associate Thierry Carlin, a marine engineer and commercial diver, realising the potential of the unexploited source of water in solving world water problems, started Nymphea Environnement in 2000, at present owned by the Vinci Group, to explore the possibilities, using natural energy – gravity, buoyancy, waterhead, etc – without using pumps, electricity or fuel.

According to Nymphea, the water is mainly intended for human consumption in areas affected by increasing drought. And depending on its quality, it can also be used for agriculture or industry.

The company believes that the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have hydro-geological potential in sub-marine springs, and has reportedly worked for the Ministry of Environment in Qatar and has created a branch office in the UAE.

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