The Mascara startup has developed a non-polluting desalination process

À Moia-Moia au Cap-Vert, aucune goutte de pluie n’est tombée depuis près de trois ans. Mascara y a installé son unité de dessalement autonome qui produit 50 m3 d’eau saine par jour.

What if the oceans were the solution to quench the thirst of the 2 billion people without access to drinking water identified by the WHO? The desalination (or desalination) of sea and brackish water has existed since the 1950s. But it has only been twenty years since it became an effective means of obtaining drinkable water for arid or underdeveloped countries. Every day, 95 million cubic meters of water are desalinated in 177 countries (in 2018, source UN). Problem: the huge desalination plants, like those in the Gulf countries, are powered by thermal power plants that emit a large amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs), not to mention the millions of cubic meters of tailings that most often end up discharged into the sea without any treatment. Osmosun uses reverse osmosis to rid sea or stagnant water of salt and impurities, a technique used by approximately 80% of desalination sites worldwide. When you put two volumes of water in a container, one of fresh water and the other of salt water, the first is naturally attracted to the second, which is heavier with its 30 to 40 g of salt per litre. . In reverse osmosis, seawater is pushed by a pump towards a double hemipermeable membrane which allows water molecules to pass and retains mineral salts. “This process has been greatly improved. For a long time, desalination by reverse osmosis consumed as much energy as by distillation, which consists of heating salt water which evaporates and then condensing this water vapor freed from impurities. Today, reverse osmosis consumes three times less energy » recalls Quentin Ragetly, president of Mascara. The French SME has optimized this technology by adding a solar energy power supply device without any CO2 emissions and without batteries, used to store electricity in order to “smooth” the intermittent nature of solar radiation which disappears at night or when the weather is overcast; batteries that are expensive to buy and must be replaced regularly and then recycled. This innovative process was one of the first to receive the Solar Impulse Foundation label from Bertrand Piccard. Osmosun can operate by being connected to an electrical network – it then produces drinking water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – or off the network, the installation operating from sunrise to sunset. Its capacity ranges from 1 to 600 m3/day and up to 10,000 m3 with hybrid energy sources.

Fresh water for isolated populations

Quentin Ragetly, an engineer who worked for the CEA, BP and Engie, took over the management of the SME in January 2020. He was hired by Marc Vergnet, who founded Mascara (the Moroccan city where he was born in 1942) in 2014 with Maxime Haudebourg, expert in renewable energies. Agricultural engineer and disciple of René Dumont, Marc Vergnet is a serial inventor. He developed the hydraulic transmission pump that bears his name, without pistons or friction and which does not corrode, used in more than 100,000 African villages, and an anticyclone folding wind turbine. Osmosun completes this panoply of innovations designed to help developing countries which are the first to be affected by the lack of water. “Our desalination solution makes it possible to provide fresh water to isolated and remote populations, and to do so in a sustainable way, from an economic and environmental point of view” explains Quentin Ragetly. Mascara has benefited from recent market developments which have seen photovoltaics become one of the cheapest. “Our renewable energy approach remained a heavily subsidized niche. It is now a real economic reality. analyzes the engineer. After a proof of concept (POC) in 2016 and the installation of a demonstrator in Masdar, the new city of the United Arab Emirates, a first industrial unit was deployed the following year in Bora-Bora (French Polynesia). Since then, the SME has taken off with some fifty projects completed or in progress, mainly in Africa (Mozambique, Kenya, Senegal, Cape Verde, etc.), Asia (Philippines, Indonesia) and Oceania (Polynesia and Australia). Quentin Ragetly’s mandate is to take Mascara from the stage of an innovative start-up to that of an industrial SME that is developing internationally. “Excepting 2019 and 2020, pandemic years, we achieved 2 million in turnover in 2021 and we expect 6.3 million this year” he announces. The French company does not intend to compete with the huge desalination units capable of producing 1 billion liters per day. It focused on rural agglomerations and secondary towns of 10,000 to 300,000 inhabitants. Desalination is the most expensive solution for producing drinking water. It is only considered in the absence of alternatives.

A deep impact

“In the village of Gandiaye in Senegal, for example, the groundwater is highly fluoridated, which causes major health problems. The only way to get rid of it is reverse osmosis” describes Quentin Ragetly. Mascara opted for a turnkey solution model, from design to commissioning and production of the units in Chartres, which are then shipped and installed. It takes about 3 months to prepare and transport a small unit, and between 6 and 18 months for the largest ones. The price range goes from 10,000 euros for the smallest plant to several million for the most powerful. The three main sectors targeted are communities, the mining industry and the hotel industry. Some achievements are financed by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). This is the case in Moia-Moia in Cape Verde, an archipelago in West Africa in the process of desertification which bears its name more and more badly: no drop of rain has fallen there for nearly three year. “Without water, the villages became depopulated. Thanks to our autonomous unit which produces 50 m3 of clean water per day, we have been able to relaunch agricultural production and bring young people back” welcomes the president of Mascara. The Eure-et-Loir SME has also developed Osmosun Nomad, a mobile unit designed for rapid commissioning in a humanitarian emergency context, which can be transported by plane and then put on a trailer. Mascara is experiencing sustained growth and plans to hire 5 people this year to grow from 17 to 22 employees. After raising funds in 2019, the company is aiming for profitability in 2022. “Here, opening a tap is a normal gesture. In some regions, little girls walk 15 km to fetch drinking water. We don’t only bring water, because it determines health, the feminine condition, food, etc. The issue of CO2 is certainly important, but our true impact on an isolated population is more profound” concludes Quentin Ragetly. The 45,000 people fed by Mascara may represent a drop of drinking water in the ocean of poverty, but it changes the lives of these populations.

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Article from T La Revue n°10 special “water” currently on newsstands and available on our online store