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Oil tankers, not icebergs, a water scarcity solution?

November 25, 2013

4 Min Read

Towing icebergs to ease water scarcity is yesterday; transporting water in supertankers is today.

What if ready-to-drink filtered water, 500,000 tons at a time, could be consistently shipped across the world in old oil vessels and the effort prove financially viable? Thorsteinn Gudnason believes it can happen — very soon.

Bulk shipments of water involve tremendous overhead and the trick is pulling a profit, but Gudnason, managing director of Reykjavik-based Aqua Omnis, says his company is ready to transport water wherever it’s needed. “We [Iceland] have an abundance of high-quality spring water underneath our surface which we are offering to the world … It flows from Iceland into the ocean, quenching no one’s thirst.”

From Bloomberg: “Iceland has vast amounts of spring water naturally filtered by mountians and lava terrain for hundreds of years that otherwise goes to waste…” According to Gudnason, the filtration process will allow for delivery of potable water. In other words, the supertankers, like giant kegs, can be tapped on arrival at whatever country buys Aqua Omnis water.

Hauling water across the ocean has always been full of promise, but has remained a financial dead-end, yet Aqua Omnis believes their approach will work and claims investors in the Arabian Gulf have bought in: “It will cost $300 million to start the initial project including a minimum of seven ships, fuel and mooring equipment,” reports Bloomberg.

Is Gudnason’s plan financially sound? It will depend on how much countries are willing to pay. Abundance of water (such as lies beneath Iceland) means very little; it’s a beautiful starting point and little else, because water transport schemes live long shelf lives, but usually with little to show. The most prominent example might be iceberg towing. Icebergs have long been promoted as lifelines for water-stressed countries (thousands break away from the polar ice caps every year), but believers in iceberg towing have delivered a fascinating, but failed gospel.

The Atlantic has a list of iceberg-related ideas dating back to 1825. A few from the roll:

1. Mid-1800s: “… small icebergs were towed from southern Chile up to Valparaiso as part of the brewery supply chain.” The ice was used for refrigeration and the business continued until the “turn of the century.”

2. 1914: "The Northern Berg Ice Company is planning to tow icebergs into Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, exhibit them excursion steamers, and then dynamite the bergs into small pieces for market. No names of interested capitalists have as yet been made public …"

3. 1956: John Isaacs, godfather of modern iceberg towing, suggests "capturing an eight-billion ton iceberg, 20 miles long, 3000 feet wide, and 1000 feet deep in the Antarctic and towing it up to San Clemente Island off San Diego in a matter of 200 days."

4. 1960: The oil industry develops a floating bride to pull icebergs away from oilrigs.

5. 1978: “The California legislature endorsed the idea of towing two icebergs to southern California”

Icebergs in Arabia

Also in the 1970s, Mohammad al-Faisal, a member of the Saudi royal family, tried to tap French engineer Georges Mougin’s iceberg ideas in a massive undertaking. Al-Faisal wasn’t quite P.T. Barnum, but he did manage to command the attention of popular culture with promises that quickly faded. From Fast Company: “Faisal planned on wrapping a 100-million-ton iceberg in sailcloth and plastic and tugging it from the North Pole to the Red Sea, though the cost was estimated at an exorbitant $100 million. For a swank conference on "iceberg utilization," he even managed to ship, via helicopter, plane, and truck, a two-ton "mini-berg" from Alaska to Iowa, where the giant block of ice was chipped apart to chill delegates' drinks. According to a Time report from October of 1977, Faisal predicted that he'd have an iceberg in Arabia ‘within three years.’”

In 2011, the iceberg movement caught fire again when Mougin and a group of French engineers claimed simulations showed iceberg towing might work under opportune conditions. They said it would take five months to pull a sleeve-insulated iceberg from Newfoundland to North Africa and 60 percent of a 7-ton iceberg would remain after the trip — but at a cost of $10 million. Not exactly prime bait for potential investors.

Georges Mougin is not giving up his plans to harvest icebergs — at 88, he still believes his basic principles on towing are correct, and success is a matter of time and detail.

As for Gudnason and Aqua Omnis, they believe they’ll have their water fleet running within three years.


Follow me on Twitter: @CBennett71

Email me: [email protected]


*Photo courtesy of Kim Hansen, Wikimedia Commons

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