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Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

Automation and process control of reverse osmosis plants using

soft computing methodologies
Ali Zilouchian*, Mutaz Jafar
Department of Electrical Engineering, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL 33431, USA
Tel. +1 (561) 297-3468; Fax +1 (561) 297-2336; e-mail:

Received 25 September 2000; accepted 9 October 2000


At a time of intensive demand for producing fresh water at a reasonable cost, addressing automation, process
control and cost optimization of desalination plants have become increasingly evident. Large-scale direct seawater
reverse osmosis (RO) plants must perform at high standards due to the increasing cost of high quality water
production, high equipment utilization, and rising government regulations on labor protection and the environment. In
this keynote presentation, the recent innovation and technological advances in the design and implementation of soft
computing methodologies for desalination processes are addressed. Such advances are mainly due to the recent
developments of intelligent control design approaches for the integration of sensory information, computation, human
reasoning and decision making. The principal partners in such an intelligent system include fitzzy logic (FL), neural
network (NN), generic algorithms (GA) and probabilistic reasoning (PR). Various issues which is related to the design
and implementation of soft computing methodologies including the trade-off between tolerance, precision and
uncertainty are also addressed. As a case study, the design and implementation of an intelligent system for a direct
seawater RO system located near Atlantic Ocean at Boca Raton, Florida is presented. The operation of the prototype
plant indeed demonstrated the effective and optimum performance of the design for two types of membrane modules,
spiral wound (SW) and hollow fine fiber (HFF), under forced diverse operating conditions. The system has achieved a
constant recovery of 30% and salt passage of 1.026% while salt concentration of six major salts were kept below their
solubility limits at all time. The implementation of the proposed intelligent control methodology has achieved a 5%
increase in availability and reduction in manpower requirements as well as reduction in overall chemical consumption
of the plant. Therefore, it is believed that the cost of producing water can be decreased using the proposed fully
automated control strategy.
Keywords: Reverse osmosis; Automation; Process control

* Corresponding author.

Presented at the International Conference on Seawater Desalination Technologies on the Threshold of the New
Millennium, Kuwait, 4-7 November 2000.

0011-9164/01/$- See front matter 2001 Elsevier Science B.V. All fights reserved
PII: so011-9164(01)00138-2


.4. Zilouchian, M. Jafar ~Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

1. Introduction

With increasing complexity in the nature of

various industrial processes, as well as household
appliances, the link between ambiguity, robustness, and performances of these systems has
become increasingly evident. This may explain
the dominant role of emerging "intelligent systems" in recent years [ 1]. However, the definition
of intelligent systems is a function of expectations
and the status of the present knowledge: Perhaps
the "intelligent systems" of today are the "classical systems" of tomorrow.
The concept of intelligent control was first
introduced nearly two decades ago by Saridis
and Fu [2]. Despite its significance and applicability to various processes, the control community
paid no substantial attention to such an approach.
In recent years, the intelligent control has
emerged as one of the most active and fruitful
areas of Research and Development (R&D)
within the spectrum of engineering disciplines
with a variety of industrial applications [3-[8].
During the last four decades, the researchers
have proposed many "model based" control
strategies. In general, these design approaches
involve various phases such as modeling,
analysis, simulation, implementation and verification. Many of these conventional and modelbased methods have found their way into
practice and provided satisfactory solutions to
the spectrum of complex systems under various
uncertainties. However, as Zadeh articulated as
early as 1962 [9], "often the solution of real life
problem in system analysis and control has been
sub-ordinated to the development of mathematical
theories that dealt with over-idealized problems
bearing little relation to theory".
In a broad perspective, intelligent systems
underlie what is called "soft computing'. In
traditional hard computing, the prime objectives
of the computations are precision and certainty.
However, in soft computing, the precision and

certainty carry a cost. Therefore, it is realistic to

consider the integration of computation, reasoning, and decision making as various partners in a
consortium in order to provide a framework for
the trade-off between precision and uncertainty.
This integration of methodologies provides a
foundation for the conceptual design and
deployment of intelligent systems. The principal
partners in such consortium are fuzzy logic,
neural network computing generic algorithms
and probabilistic reasoning. Furthermore, these
methodologies in most part are complimentary
rather than competitive [10,11]. Increasingly,
these approaches are also utilized in combination,
which are referred to as "hybrid systems".
Presently, the most known systems of this type
are neuro-fuzzy systems. Hybrid intelligent
systems are likely to play a critical role for many
years to come [12,13].
In contrast to analytical methods, soft
computing methodologies mimic consciousness
and cognition in several important respects: they
can learn from experience; they can universalize
into domains where direct experience is absent;
and through parallel computer architectures that
simulate biological processes, they can perform
mapping from inputs to the outputs faster than
inherently serial analytical representations. The
trade off, however, is a decrease in accuracy. If
such tendency towards impreoision could be
tolerated, then it should be possible to extend the
scope of the applications even to these problems
where the analytical and mathematical representations are readily available. The motivation
for this extension is the expected decrease in
computational load and consequent increase of
computation speeds that permit more robust
control. There is an extensive literature in soft
computing from both theoretical as well as
applied viewpoints [2-19]. The scope of this
presentation is limited to the applications of two
of the members o f the consortium in soft
computing, namely fuzzy logic (FL) and neural

A. Zilouchian, M. Jafar / Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

networks (NN) to desalination technology [20-

This paper is organized as follows: in section
2, justification as well as rationale for the
utilization of NN in industrial applications are
presented. Section 3 introduces the concept of FL
as well as its applicability to various industrial
processes. Application, design and implementation of intelligent systems to desalination systems
are presented in section 4.
2. Neural networks (NN)
For many decades, it has been a goal for
engineers and scientist to develop a machine with
simple elements similar to one found in human
brain. References to this subject can be found
even in the scientific literature of nineteenth
century. During the 1940s, researchers desiring
to duplicate the human brain, developed simple
hardware (and later software) models of biological neurons and their interconnection systems.
McCulloch and Pitts in 1943 [14] published the
first systematic study on biological neural networks. Four years later the same authors explored
the network paradigms for pattern recognition
using a single-layer perceptron. Along with these
progresses, psychologists were developing models
of human learning. One such model, which has
proved most fruitful, was due to D.O. Hebb, who
in 1949 proposed a learning law that became the
starting point for artificial neural networks
training algorithms. Augmented by many other
methods, it is now well recognized by the
scientists that how a network of artificial neurons
could exhibit learning behavior. In the 1950s and
1960s, a group of researchers combined these
biological and psychological insights to produce
the first artificial neural network [15]. Initially
implemented as electronic circuits, they were
later converted into a more flexible medium of
computer simulation. However, from 1960 to
1980, due to certain severe limitations on what a
NN can perform as pointed out by Minsky [16],


neural network research went into near eclipse.

The discovery of training methods for multi-layer
network of the 1980's has, more than any other
factor, been responsible for recent resurgence of
2.1. Rationale for using N N in engineering

In general, Artificial Neural Networks (ANN)

are composed of many simple elements emulating
various brain activities. They exploit massively
parallel local processing and distributed representation properties that are believed to exist in
the brain. A major motivation to introduce ANN
among many researchers has been the exploration
and re-production of human information processing tasks such as speech, vision, and
knowledge processing and motor control. The
attempt of organizing such information processing
tasks highlights the classical comparison between
information processing capabilities of the human
and the so-eaUed hard computing. The computer
can multiply large numbers at fast speed, yet it
may not be capable to understand an unconstrained pattern such as speech. On the other
hand, though a human being understands speech,
he lacks the ability to compute the square root of
a prime number without the aid of pencil and
paper or a calculator. The difference between
these two opposing capabilities can be traced to
different processing methods which each
employs. Digital computers rely upon algorithmbased programs that operate serially, controlled
by CPU, and store the information at a particular
location in memory. On the other hand, the brain
relies on highly distributed representations and
transformations that operate in parallel, have
distributed control through billions of highly
interconnected neurons or processing elements,
and store information in various straight connections called synapses.
During the last decade, various NN structures
have been proposed by the researchers in order
to take advantages of such human brain eapabi-


A. Zilouchian, M. dafar / Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

lities. In general, neural networks are composed

of many simple elements operating in parallel.
The network function is determined largely by
the connections between these elements. Neural
networks can be trained to perform complex
functions due to the nature of their non-linear
mappings of input to output data set. For further
information in this area please see references

3.1. Rationale for using fuzzy logic in engineering

During the last four decades, most of control

system problems have been formulated by the
objective knowledge of the given systems (e.g.
mathematical model). However, as we have
pointed out in section 1, there are knowledgebased systems and information, which cannot be
described by traditional mathematical representations. Such relevant subjective knowledge is
often ignored by the designer at the front end,
but often utilized in the last phase in order to
evaluate such design. Fuzzy logic provides a
framework for both types of this knowledge. So
called knowledge based methodology is much
closer to human thinking and natural language
than tradition the so-called crisp logic.
Fuzzy logic controller (FLC) utilizes the fuzzy
logic in order to convert the linguistic control
strategy based on expert knowledge into an
automatic control strategy. In order to use the
fuzzy logic for control purposes, we need to add
a front-end "fuzzifier" and a rear-end "defuzzitier" to the usual input-output data set. A simple
fuzzy logic controller is shown in Fig. 1. It
contains four components: rules, fuzzifier,
inference engine, and defuzzifier. Once the rule
has been established, it can be considered as a
nonlinear mapping from the input to the output.

3. Fuzzy logic control (FLC)

The fuzzy logic has been the area of heated
debate and much controversy during the last
three decade. The first paper in fuzzy set theory,
which is now considered to be the seminal paper
of the subject, was written by Zadeh [11], who is
considered as the founding father of the field. In
that work Zadeh was implicitly advancing the
concept of human approximate reasoning to make
effective decisions on the basis of available
imprecise linguistic information [4,11]. The first
implementation of this idea was accomplished in
1975 by Mamdani [19], which demonstrated the
viability of fuzzy logic control (FLC) for a small
model steam engine. After this pioneer work,
many consumer products as well as other high
tech. applications using fuzzy technology have
been developed and are currently available in the
countries around the world.

input Ld,







Fig. 1. A simple structure of a fuzzy logic controller.


,4. Zilouchian, M. dafar / Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

4. Application of soft computing to process

control in desalination technology
In general, most of g o plants' operations are
based on local monitoring of certain water parameters using local sensors and instruments with
no potential access to higher-level control actions.
Such classical systems commonly require competent and expert technical staff for quality
assurance and maintenance in order to interpret
the measured data and take necessary action
during on-line operation. On the other hand,
where quality control and maintenance is not
available, the plant will be often abandoned
within a few years. RO plants can be considered
as ideal processes for the seawater desalination
from several viewpoints [27]. However, problem
with RO include the real-time autonomous actions
and operations that require continuous monitoring
and intelligent decision making based on expert
knowledge in addition to achieving improvement
on the membrane performance.
Both RO and MSF plants are non-linear
processes which should operate with performance
optimization under specific constraints. The nonlinearity relates to variation in process characteristics such as feed total dissolved solids and pH,
which in turn causes changes to product quality
and quantity parameters such as salt rejection and
recovery. An RO desalination system is usually
designed based on defined set of data analysis
such as flow, temperature and feed water
composition. However, in reality, plant operation
has to be flexible in order to respond to the
changing variables. Integration of key process
information into the control strategy's decisionmaking and prediction can yield increase in the
lifetime of the membranes, increase availability,
increase efficiency and optimize the plant performance. Specifically, the intelligent control systems for the desalination processes can address
the following issues:
Prediction of critical water quality parameters


based on sensory information and a developed

neural network model.
Development and implementation of on line
autonomous actions in the operation of the
plant for continuous monitoring and decisionmaking using soft computing methodologies.
Enabling direct seawater RO systems to
perform according to the optimization indexes
of product flow, product recovery, salt rejection and overall operating costs.
Lowering the total power requirement to operate the plant and eliminate any atmospheric
Decreasing the use of chemical dosing in the
feed and, therefore, lowering the chemical
concentration in the brine.

In the following subsections, the above issues

are addressed.
4.1. Prediction o f quality parameters using N N

During the last few years, several neural

network architectures have been proposed for the
development of the predictive models in desalination processes [21-26]. The main advantage of
the model is due to non-linear mapping of NN
from input to output sets as well as complexity
of interaction between neurons. In particular,
backpropagation and radial function networks
are widely used. The utilization of an NN model
to predict the product quality of an RO process is
a key factor to decrease the membrane degradation and increase the overall efficiency of the
system. There are several developed predictive
models for MSF [21] as well as RO [24,25]. Due
to the space limitation these models are not
discussed here. In [26], the following issues have
been addressed related to the predictive models
for RO plants:
The utilization of backpropagation (BP) and
radial basis function networks (RBFN) to
predict critical water parameters for three

A. Zilouchian, M. dafar/ Desalination 135 (2001) 51-.59


different types of water intake plants.

Development of new techniques combining
supervised and unsupervised learning based
on redistribution of clustering data sets.

4.2. Application of fuzzy logic control to RO

The nature of the membrane separation
process and the characteristics of the membrane
system impose a number of constraints on R e
systems [27-31 ]. These constraints require continuous monitoring and control if the system is to
perform economically over a long period [30].
The main operational constraints for R e desalination are as follows:
1. Pre-treatment control for suspended solids
to obtain biological and chemical stability.
2. Operation between a minimum temperature
to provide required flux and a maximum temperature allowed by the membrane specifications.

3. Operation between minimum brine flow to

avoid concentration polarization and maximum
flow with respect to desired recovery.
4. Operation at a pressure to obtain desired
mass transfer and equalization of pressure drop.
5. Chemical characteristics of feed water and
dynamics of mass transfer.
Loss in salt rejection and loss of permeate
flow are the main problems encountered in R e
plant operation. It is of utmost importance that
corrective measures are taken as early as possible
[20,30,31]. Some of the parameters such as,
temperature and feed water salinity change
naturally. Other parameters may change as a
consequence of other variations present in the
system. Once the problem has been detected,
causes must be identified and corrective measures
must be taken by the system. Fig. 2 shows the
schematic diagram of the developed fuzzy
controller. The RBFN predictions of recovery and


Eogioo II'


.~ Row



"] Data base I["



Fig. 2. Schemeof the neuro-fitzzycontrolsystem.


A. Ziiouchian, M. Jafar ~Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

salt rejection described in previous section were

used as part of the input to the fuzzy inference
engine (FIS). Measured values from sensor
information make the remaining of the input
values to the FIS. These inputs include the
1. Temperature
2. Feed TDS
3. Feed pH
4. Feed flow
5. Feed pressure
6. Brine pressure
7. Permeate flow
8. Permeate conductivity
9. Salt rejection
11. Scale index
The fuzzy system was implemented using
Mamdani architecture [19]. The hardware system
configuration is shown in Fig. 3. It consists of a
fuzzy controller and a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) interface and various sensors. A
PLC control the input-output interface signals,
and provides the transformation of data to the
fuzzy controller. The CPU used 32-bit architecture for all arithmetic and comparison operations
and an expanded register set.
4.2.1. Chemical dosing control

There are two factors that can influence the

required acid dosing, desired pH value and actual
and/or predicted scaling. The pH set point was
set to a value determined by S&DSI. It is equal
to --0.1 for minimum carbonate scaling for HFF
membrane, and the lowest hydrolysis rate for the
CTA membrane. Two methods were used for
scaling calculations, predicted and actual ion
concentration in the brine stream. In the predicted
method, RBFN was used to predict the ion
product and ion strength of the brine stream, In
sequel, it was compared with the solubility


product of the particular salt in question. The

fuzzy controller provided an external analog input
to the acid-dosing pump based on the defuzzified
4.2.2. High pressure control

Control of applied pressure depends upon the

water and salt fluxes, total dissolved solids, brine
discharge, permeate flow, permeate conductivity
and feed temperature. The main task of the fuzzy
controller includes the tracking and adaptation of
these variables. The goal is achieved by derivation
of new high-pressure value considering the
maximum allowable operating pressure of the
membrane. The defuzzified output signal of the
fuzzy controller is externally fed into a highpressure valve in the brine steam. This signal in
turn determines the degree of opening/closing of
the valve according to the six input variables. The
pressure need to be adjusted to provide a constant
water quality, in this case salt rejection.

4. 2.3. Flow rate control

Control of effective flow rate depends on

permeate flow, trans-membrane pressure, scaling
index, and recovery. The task of the fuzzy
controller is to adapt to changes in these variables
and control the required flow rate for the feed to
the RO membrane. The system has continuously
monitored and control the flow rate by adjusting
the speed (rpm) of the motor. This is done in such
a way to ensure that the recovery remained
constant during the normal operational period.
Low permeate flow combined with high salt
passage indicates that scaling might occurs,
therefore, the recovery in this case must be
lowered. A high differential pressure across the
membrane is caused by the salts deposits or
fouling of the membrane on the feed side. The
signal from the FLC drove a variable speed


A. Zilouchian, M. Jafar / Desalination 135 (2001) 51-59

Controlled Plant





Sample/hold [



Fig. 3. Hardware set up for the reverse osmosis system.

frequency converter, which in turn determined

the required flow rate.


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