An Egyptian boy drinks water from a pump in Abu Passat village in Al Fayyum, about 80 km southwest of Cairo. Picture: REUTERS
An Egyptian boy drinks water from a pump in Abu Passat village in Al Fayyum, about 80 km southwest of Cairo. Picture: REUTERS

LEAVING Atlanta in 1997, using her last dollars before the long trip home, Mona Naim picked up a book called Standard Handbook of Hazardous Waste Treatment and Disposal — light reading for the flight back to Egypt. The purchase sparked nearly two decades of experiments at Alexandria University that may eventually affect billions of lives.

The research Naim began in 1997 culminated in an article published in August in the academic journal Water Science and Technology. In the article, a team of Egyptian researchers — Mona Naim, Abeer Moneer, Ahmed El-Shafei, and Mahmoud Elewa — described a simple and efficient new process for turning salt water into clean drinking water.

In the weeks after its publication, news of the research drew headlines around the world. The team behind it has attracted less attention, but as a group of Egyptian scientists using a government grant to achieve outstanding results, their story serves as a model for what local researchers can accomplish when they are supported properly.

Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, but 95% of it is undrinkable. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that 700-million people, 10% of the world, don’t have access to clean drinking water. By 2025, that number may be 1.8-billion. The Earth’s population is increasing rapidly as freshwater resources simultaneously decline. Experts say "the era of easy water is over".

Water scarcity is especially relevant to Egypt, where water availability per capita has fallen more than 60% since 1970. By United Nations standards, Egypt is more than 30% below the threshold for scarcity and is considered "water-poor", a condition expected to worsen in the years ahead.

The solution is to find a way to make undrinkable water drinkable — turning salt water into fresh.

Naim and her team developed a desalination technique that uses up to 70% less energy than other methods, and can be powered by solar energy. Their work brings a major innovation to the field of desalination: a more efficient and inexpensive membrane. For the first time, this membrane may make it feasible to desalinate large amounts of water using pervaporation, a technique in which water is purified using a combination of evaporation and membranes.

Their method uses cheap and abundant materials, and can process water with very high levels of salt and contaminants. The findings are among the most promising in years, and may eventually relieve some of the pressure on the Earth’s clean-water supply.

Now 72, Naim is professor emeritus in the Alexandria University Faculty of Engineering. She proudly calls herself the mother of the group, "her family" — a description they all embrace.

It is not hard to imagine how this team dynamic could achieve results. Sitting around a coffee table, they joke and compliment each other, laughing about stories from their time together.

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NAIM has lived in Alexandria all her life. In registering for her engineering master’s degree in 1967, her adviser "made me work on membrane-fabrication", she says. The topic has become her area of expertise over a long career of teaching and research.

Sitting next to Naim is Moneer, associate professor at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, and another Alexandria native. "It was my always dream to get to the Faculty of Engineering," Moneer says.

Moneer has been working closely with Naim since the beginning of her master’s degree in 1991, when she began research on liquid membranes. Moneer waited to start work on her PhD until 1998, when Naim returned to Egypt. Researching together for more than 25 years, their expertise and personal relationship made the project possible.

Elewa, head of the Research Development Department of the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport, earned his PhD on the same day as Moneer in 2005.

"I assigned pervaporation for desalination as his topic," Moneer says. "At the time, nobody in the whole world was working on this topic," Elewa says. "I could find no documents on desalination by pervaporation."

Ultimately, Elewa joined the private sector, where his career has concentrated on research and development. "I like academics and research, but I don’t like teaching," he explains.

The final member of the group is Ahmed El-Shafei, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems in the Faculty of Agriculture. Shafei started working with Naim and Moneer in 2010.

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SINCE receiving degrees in agricultural and civil engineering, his career has focused on irrigation, drainage, soil mechanics, and pollution — areas in which science, agriculture, and engineering meet. During an irrigation project in 2010, Shafei sought advice on desalination from colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering.

"From this day, I haven’t left them alone," he says.

Historically, university research in Egypt has been underfunded. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that funding for research and development amounted to just 0.43% of gross domestic product. By contrast, the US spent 2.73%, South Korea 4.04%, and Russia 1.01%. But the team made good use of the resources available. In 2010, they responded to a call for research proposals on "new methods for desalination" from the Egyptian Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF), a government initiative to strengthen research in science and technology.

The team won two grants, receiving $230,000 to conduct their research on both liquid membranes and pervaporation as methods of desalination.

After experimenting with more than 100 combinations, the team developed a membrane than can draw clean water from a more than 40% salt solution. By comparison, the Dead Sea is only 34% salt.

The team has already received interest from a number of organisations hoping to assist in the next steps of moving the project from prototype to pilot plant and eventually large-scale, commercially viable plants that could help billions facing water scarcity.

Ultimately, they hope their findings will benefit mankind and prompt more research into desalination.

"We need the world to put great effort into desalination, because it is the only way we can produce water for drinking and irrigation — for life," Naim says. "Water means life."

New York Times

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