UAE startup Manhat hopes solar stills can help solve Gulf’s water crisis

Special UAE startup Manhat hopes solar stills can help solve Gulf’s water crisis
Another advantage he mentioned is the massive accessibility to water surfaces, given that oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Getty Images
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Updated 04 November 2021

UAE startup Manhat hopes solar stills can help solve Gulf’s water crisis

UAE startup Manhat hopes solar stills can help solve Gulf’s water crisis
  • Another advantage he mentioned is the massive accessibility to water surfaces, given that oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface

Eureka moments in business come in many ways.

For Saeed Alhassan, it was when a half-full water bottle sitting in a car overnight six years ago developed water droplets on its previously dry inner surfaces.

Manhat, his Abu-Dhabi based startup that discovery inspired now hopes to address a global water market predicted to be worth over $900 billion by 2023, and potentially the worsening problem of freshwater scarcity in the Gulf and other regions.

“When I observed the bottle the next day, the inner surface had significant water droplets,” he told Arab News. 

“This observation is simply due to a concept called ‘solar still’; which is a well-known phenomenon that is studied in scientific literature and has spun technologies that can provide water through this natural distillation process.” 

However, the process itself is not scalable as it currently is. As a result, Alhassan went on to tweak the concept to work on open water surfaces; where the water cycle starts and ends.

Such a concept of distilling seawater in a pyramid-like container, and its physics, are already well known, having been used as a survival mechanism in marine applications. 

“The creativity we wanted to bring forward is that, instead of doing it in a closed container where you put seawater inside and you remove the salt after, we put it in an open water surface and that makes a huge difference – not just technically but from applications as well,” explained Alhassan, who is also an associate professor in chemical engineering at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. 

“The major difference is that you don’t have to worry about any salt residue because (with) open sea surface, no matter how hard you try to evaporate the water, there won’t be any salt to accumulate.” 

Another advantage he mentioned is the massive accessibility to water surfaces, given that oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. 

The technology is based on placing sealed constructs on open water surfaces where water evaporates due to solar radiation.

The evaporated water condenses on the inner wall of these constructs to be collected in a storage tank. Alhassan and his team design and manufacture the product in Dubai by buying different pieces and putting them together. 

Currently in the prototyping phase, its size will depend on how much water is needed. So far, the prototype measures 3 meters by 3 meters as a floating pontoon, and another smaller version of half a meter by half a meter. “So it is customizable but, at the end of the day, we will standardize the size,” he noted.

With patents in the GCC, the region has been the logical next step to demonstrate the technology, given its arid nature. Singapore is also on the agenda, as it provides an adequate hub to demonstrate and test new technologies. 

“So it’s easy for us to sell the products there and then we can go to different locations around the globe as long as there is the sea, or even rivers,” Alhassan said. 

“The water itself can easily be used for irrigation, there are no limits. Potable water is also one of the possibilities, but we still have to add some salt to our water because there is no iron inside and there are more regulations governing that.”

Patents have also been issued or are pending in the United Arab Emirates, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Japan, Germany, Spain, as well as France, Norway, Italy, India and Australia. A pilot test is planned next year for Manhat, which was launched in 2019 with Dr Ibrahim Almojal, the CEO of the Saudi Industrial Development Fund, as its advisor. 

And the concept is timely as several challenges are currently shaping the future of the water sector in the Gulf, including the critical impact of climate change on its water security. 

Alhassan mentioned current desalination practices as another one of them, as they produce brine in a 2:1 ratio compared to freshwater. “In essence, we are making water with a higher salt concentration than water with less salt concentration,” he added. “That is why a good deal of investment is targeted toward resolving the brine issue.” 

Desalination is also considered energy-intensive, most of which is produced from fossil fuel and, inevitably, emits carbon dioxide. Globally, operational desalination plants emit around 76 million tonnes of Co2 per year, with emissions expected to increase to around 218 million tonnes a year by 2040.

To tackle such issues, Alhassan spoke of the importance of investments in ecosystems to realize the extensive research done in local universities that can contribute solutions to the water sector. 

Institutions in Saudi Arabia, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the King Fahad University, as well as in the UAE, have been extensively working on water solutions to help alleviate the burden on the Gulf. 

“Water is important globally, but it is critically important here because of the shortage of natural water sources,” he noted. “This area should continue to work on novel solutions to that.”

Manhat is currently in talks with the Saudi Ministry of Investment, and it is collaborating with the Abu Dhabi Ports to use their location for prototypes. 

“Our intention is to bring this technology to the market and to help in producing water that can be used in different applications,” he said. 

“Currently, we are in the early stage of testing and evaluation of prototypes, and it will be followed by pilot-scale testing to demonstrate the viability and performance of this technology.”

The system holds much promise for the Gulf, a region considered by most as one of the worst off in terms of physical water stress. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region receives less rainfall than other regions, and its countries tend to have fast-growing, densely populated urban centers that require more water. 

Although many wealthier countries are able to meet their water needs, they must do so by using the expensive and energy-intensive process of water desalination. 

“The water crisis is a serious environmental threat and sustainability should be a core element of all industries for a green future,” said Vishnu Pillai, associate at Manhat. 

“We understand this, and we are working towards a sustainable technology to produce freshwater for human consumption, irrigation, and agriculture.”