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Series SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY The Mega-ton Water System Seawater reverse osmosis may provide drinking water for the world HJ EDITORIAL TEAM Dr. Masaru Kurihara Fellow, Toray Industries, Inc. 24 T HE United Nations estimates that the Earth’s population will increase by over three billion by the year 2050 – an increase that is expected to place significant strain on existing freshwater supplies. Seawater desalination may be used to meet these future human needs. To date, most large desalination plants have operated through multi-stage flash distillation (MSF), where seawater is distilled by boiling it and collecting the condensed steam. However, seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) is capable of converting a greater percentage of the input seawater into freshwater, and may represent the next step in desalination technology. “Japan has a lot of rainfall, so there is no domestic need for high-end water treatment plants,” explains water research veteran Dr. Masaru Kurihara, whose work with Toray Industries, Inc. has seen him involved in water treatment research since the 1970s. “So from the outset, our water research was aimed at countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, which | highlighting japan need reliable fresh water supplies for their businesses and agriculture.” Dr. Kurihara has witnessed first-hand Japan’s rise in the international water research field. By the 1980s, Japan had 60-70% of the global share of MSF water treatment plants. But the emergence of the Republic of Korea as a manufacturer of MSF water treatment plants, with its lower exchange rate and cheaper production costs, ate away Japan’s share in total plant systems. In SWRO, saltwater is forced through a membrane that allows only freshwater through, leaving the salt behind. Japan retains a strong hold of the SWRO membrane market – and it is the efficiency of the membrane that largely determines the viability of the SWRO process. In 2010, the Japanese government offered Dr. Kurihara ¥3.4 billion in funding to implement the Mega-ton Water System project, one of the 30 programs in the Funding Program for World-Leading Innovative R&D on Science and Technology (FIRST Program). The project sought to find methods of reducing the energy requirements and environmental impact of saltwater desalination through SWRO.