Manipulated osmosisManipulated osmosis (MO) technology is a unique process borne out of original research conducted by the University of Surrey. MO combines forward osmosis and reverse osmosis - providing an increasingly water poor world with a low energy, low cost process to convert seawater to drinking water.

This process offers a significant reduction in capital and operating costs. It also has a positive impact on the environment, as it uses around 30% less energy than conventional desalination and lowers the consumption and disposal of hazardous chemicals.

Fresh water - a finite resource

An estimated 97.5% of the total volume of water on earth is in seas and oceans. 1.725% of water is locked in glaciers and the polar caps. 0.0175% of water is tied up in swamps, soil moisture and frost.

0.75% is fresh groundwater and just 0.0075% is found in lakes and rivers as fresh surface water. Therefore, less than 1% of the water on earth is available for consumption.

Fresh water is a finite resource, and as water consumption and population increase, many parts of the world are experiencing the effects of reduced water availability. Annual water consumption around the world has risen six-fold during the past century, which is more than twice the rate of population growth.

Water stress and water scarcity

According to the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator, a country or region is said to experience ‘water stress’ when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person per year, When water supplies drop below 1,000 cubic metres per person per year, the country or region faces what is termed ‘water scarcity’.

By current UN measures, most of the Middle East is already classified as ‘water scarce’, as the annual per capita water requirement per person, available from natural resources, is less than 500 cubic meters. But perhaps more surprisingly, so are Malta and Singapore, while Denmark, Poland and the Czech Republic are classed as ‘water stressed’.

It is expected that, by 2025, five and a half billion people - two-thirds of the world’s population - will live in countries that are classified as water stressed. In recognition of the growing water crisis, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the years 2005 to 2015 as the International Decade for Action on ‘Water for Life’.

While the future impact of climate change remains uncertain, there is a consensus among the scientific community that it is likely to exacerbate the water crisis through an increase in extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding.

The availability of fresh water is not only an issue for a drinkable water supply. The primary users of water are agriculture and industry. The approximate breakdown of water usage by sector is as follows: agriculture 69%, industry 23% and domestic 8%. Consequently, water shortages are likely to become an increasing constraint on economic growth throughout the world, particularly in the production of food. A growing population, changing diet and increasing production of bio-fuels will put intolerable pressure on depleted water resources with implications for global security, health and lifespan.

Centre for Osmosis Research and Applications

The original breakthrough in the manipulated osmosis technique was made by Professor Adel Sharif at the University of Surrey's Centre for Osmosis Research and Applications (CORA).

In response to the significant potential promise of strategic and commercially exploitable research in the area of low cost desalination technologies, the University set up CORA in 2003, the UN Year of Fresh Water. Since then, the centre’s research activities have resulted in a number of new inventions in the areas of desalination, water treatment and renewable energy.

Manipulated osmosis can be used in the construction of new desalination plants and integrated into both existing thermal desalination and reverse osmosis desalination plants, significantly reducing their carbon footprint, and reducing capital costs, power consumption and other operating costs.

The technology provides a more environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional desalination methods by significantly reducing energy, chemical consumption and salt brine discharge. There is also a range of additional benefits, including significantly lower levels of boron.


In 2005, Professor Adel Sharif was awarded the prestigious Royal Society Brian Mercer Award. Subsequent funding helped bring the technology to market and the University of Surrey raised internal finance to build a pilot scale desalination plant on site at its Guildford campus.

The subsequent success and performance of the pilot plant led to the formation of Surrey Aqua Technology Ltd, and investment from University Venture Capital specialist company, IP Group.

Surrey Aqua Technology Ltd

Surrey Aqua Technology was created as a spinout company from the University of Surrey to develop the manipulated osmosis technology. It was then incorporated into Modern Water plc to commercialise the technology and expand into important overseas markets.

Modern Water’s MO technology has the potential to make a global impact in reducing the carbon footprint of desalination plants, while enabling greater access to fresh water supplies.

The speed with which the technology has been brought to market is impressive. Surrey Aqua Technology was formed in November 2006, and in June 2007, Modern Water plc successfully completed its flotation on the London Alternative Investment Market (AIM). In the space of less than three years Modern Water has established an internationally qualified management team, raised £30m and started commercial scale plant operation.

It also represents an excellent case study of success within the UK research and innovation system, consisting of high quality research backed by the Royal Society Brian Mercer Award, coupled with strong support from UK venture partners.

Modern Water

Modern Water plc was formed in December 2006 to address the global problems of fresh water availability and the treatment and disposal of wastewater. At listing, Modern Water’s patent portfolio was primarily based on five desalination patent families. Since then, a further six patent applications have been filed covering the group’s core MO technology and other portfolio-related technologies. The protection and exploitation of intellectual property is seen as fundamental to the success of the group.

Director of CORA, Professor Adel Sharif, comments: “Manipulated osmosis and its associated technologies have the capacity to significantly change the economic and performance characteristics of industries such as desalination, conventional water treatment, power generation, oil and the chemical and energy industries.”

Driven by the scarcity of fresh water, particularly in areas of water stress, the global desalination industry is predicted to grow from 64.3 million cubic metres per day in 2010, to 97.5 million cubic metres per day in 2015. This represents a 61% increase in capacity over a five-year period, and a 140% increase in capacity over a ten-year period. The growth of the desalination market is driven by increased water scarcity around the world, a function of growing demand for water in situations where there is limited availability of natural renewable resources. Water scarcity is exacerbated by population growth in areas of limited natural resources such as the Gulf region, southern Spain and the south west of the United States.

At the time of writing, Modern Water has two large-scale desalination plants in operation; a proving plant in Gibraltar and a commercial scale plant in Oman, which has been supplying high quality water to the region since March 2010. Working with the Omani Public Authority for Electricity and Water (PAEW), Modern Water has agreed a tariff to continue to provide water to the local community to ensure consistent provision of fresh water in the area.

Modern Water’s proving plant in Gibraltar, the first of its kind in the world to use the company’s manipulated osmosis desalination technology, began supplying water directly into Gibraltar’s potable water distribution system in early May 2009. The water has been thoroughly quality tested by the client and verified by a third-party expert as suitable for public supply.

MO technology can be applied across a number of industries to deliver impressive results. Applications currently within the company’s portfolio include evaporative cooling systems, pre-treatment for thermal desalination plants, secondary oil recovery and hydro-osmotic power. Each application is at a different stage in the company’s product pipeline, with a proving plant for evaporative cooling systems now commissioned in Oman. The technology reduces power consumption by up to 90% as it uses a fraction of the electricity of a conventional plant. Design work on the other applications has been completed, and commercial opportunities are being evaluated.

Neil McDougall, Executive Chairman of Modern Water plc, comments: “Since the company’s inception, we have forged close links with a number of UK academic institutions.  We are proud of the successes we have achieved in taking these technologies from the lab to commercialisation in a short timescale.  These mutually-beneficial partnerships offer proof that business and academia can work successfully together to bring ground-breaking new technology to commercial fruition and achieve game-changing results.”  

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Professor Adel Sharif, the founder of Surrey Aqua Technology Ltd was recently named as a winner of the inaugural ACES, the Academic Enterprise Awards 2008, at a ceremony in Stockholm. The award is in recognition of his achievements in developing water purification and desalination technologies.

CORA received the EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Challenge Award for its plans to transfer the results of its research and training to help improve conditions in water-stressed regions of the world.

Modern Water was the winner of the AIM Sustainability Award 2009. The company was recognised by the voting panel for its efforts in economic, environmental and social sustainability. It is the second successive year that Modern Water has been nominated at the event, which is organised by the London Stock Exchange.


CORA founded in 2003

Surrey Aqua Technology Ltd founded in November 2006 by Professor Adel Sharif, Neil McDougall and the University of Surrey

Surrey Aqua Technology was incorporated into Modern Water plc in June 2007 and listed on AIM with a market value of £70m

Proving desalination plan constructed in Gibraltar feeding directly into the potable water supply since May 2009

Second commercial desalination plan in Oman operational since November 2009

Evaporative cooling system proving plant was installed in Oman in mid-2010.

Key Facts and Figures

1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to safe water. This is roughly one-sixth of the world’s population - WaterAid

By 2025, it is forecast that two-thirds of the world’s population, 5.5 billion people, will live in countries classified as water stressed - United Nations.

The global desalination industry is predicted to grow 140% between 2005 and 2015. Capital expenditure on desalination worldwide is expected to total $56.4 billion by the end of 2015 - GWI Global Industry Forecast

Almost 70% of all available fresh water is used for agriculture - UN World Water Development Report

If the world’s water fitted into a bucket only one teaspoon would be drinkable - WaterAid

Annual world water use has risen six-fold during the past century, more than double the rate of population growth - Credit Suisse Report