Turning icebergs into drinking water?
Water is a vital resource in danger.
As the world starts to question the future of our blue gold, some sharp minds have come up with a slightly crazy idea: what if icebergs, gigantic freshwater reservoirs that they are, became the solution to the drinking-water shortage problem?
Using its advanced technology, Dassault Systèmes leads the investigation and simulates the feasibility of this unconventional project.
Potable water is a rare resource in many countries.
In the 21st century, nearly a billion people in the world still do not have access to clean water, while more than 2.5 billion have no water treatment system.
In light of these facts, researchers right across world are searching for solutions to produce potable water.
However, there are gigantic reservoirs of fresh water that have not been exploited: icebergs.
Unlike floe ice, which consists of frozen sea-water and is populated by wild animals, icebergs are drifting mountains of fresh water.
Calved from polar glaciers and continental icecaps, icebergs drift naturally in the ocean until they melt.
Each year, tens of thousands of icebergs are produced this way from glaciers, all destined to melt and be lost in the oceans’ salt waters.
And each year, the equivalent of a year’s consumption of potable water melts and disappears!
A Lifetime’s Dream
The idea of exploiting icebergs to produce fresh water is not new, and goes back to the 1950s with research projects by the US Army.
It gained momentum in the 1970s, notably under the influence of the famous French polar explorer Paul-Emile Victor, his friend and Arts et Métiers Engineer, Georges Mougin, and their meeting with the Saudi prince, Mohamed al-Faisal.
The first international convention on the use of icebergs was organized in Iowa in 1977, attended by 200 renowned participants, including engineers, scientists, military personnel, officials and journalists (see proceedings).
But the technical obstacles are complex; experimentation required astronomical budgets and the technology did not yet exist.
In the following years, the excitement died down and the scientists turned towards other, more realistic, less controversial and less costly projects.
A New Breath of Life
At the time, the idea of towing an iceberg seemed unrealistic.
But in the last 40 years, there has been considerable technical progress and our knowledge of icebergs has greatly improved.
Could Georges Mougin’s project be reborn?
His whole life, Georges Mougin has honed his theory of towing icebergs and has thought about capturing a tabular iceberg.
He then studied the best way to slow its melting and he imagined an unheard-of invention, a skirt made from non-woven geotextile strips.
Finally, he had to come up with the best solution for towing the iceberg with a single, high-powered tugboat, while using as little energy as possible: using following currents.
In 2009, he decided to knock at the door of Dassault Systèmes.
Indeed, he had just watched a showing of the 3D interactive documentary “Khufu Revealed” (a VirTools project) at the Geode.
Then, Georges Mougin thought of all this technology for his project: virtual worlds and 3D simulations would allow his various theories on iceberg-towing to be tested virtually to see whether his idea would be feasible.
Born in St Malo, Georges Mougin grew up in cod-fishing world of Newfoundland.
His father ran a local workshop that maintained the fishing boats.
In 1947, a few years after leaving Arts et Métiers, with the help of a Danish naval architect, he coordinated the work of transforming a US surplus ship into a polar vessel that became the “Commandant Charcot”.
This was when he met Paul-Emile Victor, and was the start of a 50-year friendship and of his fascination with the Antarctic.
Together with the Saudi prince Mohammed al-Faisal, he founded the ITI Company (Iceberg Transport International), which from 1975 to 1981 established the conditions of feasibility of transferring and exploiting tabular icebergs from the Antarctic, but had to give up the project in the face of numerous obstacles.
Since 2003, taking account of the creation of oceanic forecasting services, and the availability of maritime resources developed for off-shore oil drilling, Georges Mougin endeavored to reactivate this project to exploit icebergs.