Islands save 79 tons of CO2 a day with modern reverse osmosis plant



Demand for fresh water is high on Italy’s popular Aeolian Islands. A newly constructed modern desalination plant efficiently produces enough drinking water for the islands’ inhabitants and its visitors quicker, more efficiently and at a lower cost than previously. The reverse osmosis (RO) plant removes salt and other substances from the water, while reducing energy consumption to less than one-third of former levels.

The situation

For more than six centuries, visitors have been drawn to the beauty and mystery of Italy’s Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago that lies about 40 kilometres north of Sicily.

The popularity of the islands increased after 2000 when they were designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations. Since then, the scarcity of potable water on Lipari, the largest island and main entrance point for tourists, has become increasingly pressing.

Lipari has a permanent population of about 11,000 and no source of fresh water. For years, water was shipped from Sicily and Naples to satisfy the needs of locals and visitors. At a reported cost of more than EUR 10 per metric cube of shipped water, this solution was feasible – although costly – during winter months.

In the summer, however, the island’s population and water needs grow dramatically. Official figures cite 200,000 tourists throughout the season; Lipari’s mayor, Marco Giorgianni, suggests twice as many may arrive over the August peak. 

The Challenge

To cope with this demand, in 1988 the regional government of Sicily initiated plans for a desalination facility on Lipari. The plant began operating in 1998, using an evaporation system with high-pressure pumps. It produced 162 cubic metres per hour of potable water, which was just about enough to satisfy the needs of the locals during winter months. On the other hand, it was not energy efficient, requiring 15 kilowatt hours to produce each cubic metre of water.

In recent years, the need for both more drinking water and greater energy savings prompted the region of Sicily to invite bids for the construction of a modern desalination plant. The winning bid came from the Italian firm Sled Costruzioni Generali S.pA., signing the contract in 2011. The company’s bid was for a EUR 15 million project, including a desalination plant, a photovoltaic system to supply energy during daylight hours and other features. Sled in turn contracted Euro Mec, a world leader in water treatment plants, to handle the EUR 4 million desalination system. Euro Mec agreed to supervise the installation and start-up of the plant, plus training and on-going support to local operators. 

The solution

Elena Bonadei is the manager of this project. She is a process engineer for water treatment plants, and has worked on more than 30 of them all over the world since joining Euro Mec in 2003. While this is her company’s first project with Sled, she knows Grundfos pumps well and is confident in using them in Euro Mec projects because, she says, “They are world leaders in pumps for desalination systems.” 

Elena Bonadei and her team planned the Lipari plant in a series of stages.

 “We designed the system based on studies of the island’s capacity requirements in high and low season,” she says. “Only two sub-units operate in winter, and all six run in summer. The system was designed to encompass two additional sub-units when further expansion might be needed.” 

The plant uses a skid-mounted reverse osmosis (RO) system to convert seawater into potable water. The skid mount facilitates transportation and access by mounting the RO equipment onto a frame. The RO process removes salt and other substances from water molecules by applying pressure to the solution when it is on one side of a semipermeable membrane. Undesirable contaminants, such as salt, are retained on the pressurised side of the membrane while the purified water passes to the other side. 

The desalination units installed at the Lipari plant have two Grundfos BME pumps each as standard supply, to drive the seawater through the membranes. The higher the pressure, the larger the driving force required, thus the pump is subjected to demanding operating conditions. Grundfos’ dedicated high-pressure pumps, such as the BME, have been reinforced to generate up to 65 bar pressure. At the plant in Lipari, the pumps generate up to 65 cubic metres per hour at 62 bar. The total flow rate of the desalination plant is 450 cubic metres per hour.

The outcome

Not only is the system capable of generating almost three times more potable water than the old evaporating system, but it does so more efficiently and economically, lowering the energy consumption to less than a third. It incorporates an energy recovery device that recovers up to 96 percent on the brine side. Estimations show that the new system will save around 36,000 litres of diesel a day during peak season, equivalent to 79 tons of carbon dioxide emissions or 42 round trips by plane London−New York. 

Elena Bonadei says that Sicily’s regional government is evaluating the possibility of RO plants on other Aeolian islands, such as Salina. Like Lipari, Salina’s population increases dramatically in summer months. “The solution for such localities,” she says, “is increasingly to opt for smaller, locally-based facilities due to their reduced environmental footprint and lower production costs.”



Desalination for island resort


Google Map

Lipari, Italy



Simone Pisoni of Euro Mec, a Grundfos BMEX systems specialist,works on the first of three desalination plants in Lipari.


Elena Bonadei, Euro Mec process engineer, with Grundfos BME high-pressure pump


While tourists have been flocking to Italy’s Lipari island every summer, fresh water has been a scarce commodity.



If you need a similar solution, please contact us for further information.


If you need a similar solution, please contact us for further information.

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