Treatment of highly polluted ground water in Morocco

Self-sustaining Drinking-water Filtration System at the University of Kenitra

The application of the self-sustaining water filtration system at the University of Kenitra in Morocco is an excellent example how the space technology can be used in everyday to improve the living quality on our planet. Recycling wastewater into drinking water originally developed for the ISS astronauts is now treating groundwater for a school in Morocco. Fitting inside a standard shipping container, this water treatment facility is powered by renewable energy sources and uses space technology to filter nitrates out of groundwater for the University of Kenitra campus.

Running Water: The Moroccan Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, Lahcen Daoudi, at the opening ceremony of a water treatment facility using sustainable power and space technology at the University of Kenitra in Morocco, 17 April 2014. Copyright: Firmus.

Partnerships for Change

The village of Sidi Taïbi near Kenitra is located 30 km from Morocco’s capital city Rabat. In recent years, Sidi Taïbi, has grown rapidly and providing fresh water to its inhabitants had become difficult. The groundwater is rich in nitrates and fertiliser ano no longer suitable for human consumption. With help from a UNESCO partnership, the University of Kenitra examined possible new approach to tackle their drinking-water problem.

Building on ESA’s experience with membranes, French company Firmus teamed up with Germany’s Belectric to build a self-sustaining unit powered by solar panels and wind energy. Fitting inside a standard shipping container, this water treatment facility uses space technology to filter nitrates out of groundwater.

ESA’s MELiSSA System

For over two decades, ESA has been developing the best recipe for a closed life-support system that processes waste and delivers fresh oxygen, food and water to astronauts. The ESA-led Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative programme (MELiSSA) seeks to perfect a self-sustaining life support system that could be flown in space in the future, supplying astronauts with all the oxygen, water and food they require. The more that astronauts can recycle, the fewer supplies they need to pack for space.

 
“The average human consumes about 1 kg of oxygen, 1 kg of food and 3 litres of water daily, so water recycling will be essential to sustain astronauts for long space missions. The more that can be recycled, the less needs to be carried.”
Christophe Lasseur, ESA’s Life Support & Physical Sciences Instrumentation Section
 

One solution is to use bacteria, algae, filters and high-technology together so the organisms produce oxygen, water and food from waste. The driving element of MELiSSA is the recovering of food, water and oxygen from organic waste carbon dioxide and minerals, using light as source of energy to promote biological photosynthesis. It is based on the principle of an “aquatic” lake ecosystem where waste products are processed using the metabolism of plants and algae which in return provide food, air revitalisation and water purification. One of the discoveries is how to build and control organic and ceramic membranes with holes 700 times finer than a strand of human hair. These tiny pores can filter out unwanted compounds in water, in particular nitrates.

Clean Water System from Space to Antarctica and to Africa

The organic membranes used in Sidi Taïbi have already proven their worth in very different circumstances – at the other end of the world, in Antarctica. The Concordia Research Station, located 1600 km from the South Pole, uses the water filtration to recycle so called “grey water” from showers, washing machines and dishwashers. Working since 2005, it has required very little maintenance. While the Concordia’s permanent crew only consists of maximum 16 people, the new treatment facility in Morocco will cater for 1200 students.

 

The excess energy and water generated during school holidays is shared with locals, contributing to the local community. Moreover, if the membrane approach works well in Morocco, the unit will be scaled up to deliver water to the rest of the local population. By providing access to safe and affordable drinking water to the village of Sidi Taïbi, the self-sustaining water filtration system contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation.