Its conviction is based on the belief that MSF offers the best option for providing bulk desalination capacity from a single unit at an affordable price. ‘Our main technology is MSF because the larger projects are only possible when using this solution,’ says international desalination manager Roberto Borsani. ‘We do have the capability to supply other technology, but we have much less experience outside MSF.’

Fisia, which is part of the Impregilo Group, built its first plant in the 1970s in southern Italy. It has since installed some of the largest MSF desalination units in the world, most of which are located in the Middle East. A prime example of this is the 12 million-gallon-a-day (g/d) Taweelah B station in Abu Dhabi – the biggest MSF unit in the region when it was commissioned in the mid-1990s.

Specialising in design, engineering and construction, the company, which turned over Eur 495 million last year, outsources the bulk of its manufacturing requirements for its giant units in order to keep overheads to a minimum. Fabrication is spread among a number of international workshops, including Italy’s Belleli, Babcock of the UK and South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries.

Its strategy of concentrating most of its resources on delivering MSF technology paid dividends in 2001. In what proved a memorable year, the company scooped two of the biggest desalination contracts going, for the giant independent water and power projects planned at Ras Laffan in Qatar and Shuweihat in the UAE. The Ras Laffan contract, due for completion in mid-2004, requires the installation of four 10 million-g/d MSF units.

However, the Ras Laffan job was dwarfed six months later by the award of the $508 million Shuweihat desalination package. The 100 million-g/d plant will be the biggest desalination facility in the world when fully operational in 2004. Part of a team led by developers CMS Energy of the US and the UK’s International Power, Fisia is installing six of its giant MSF units.

However big the units being installed at Shuweihat and Ras Laffan are, Fisia is adamant that more capacity can yet be squeezed from its preferred technology. ‘MSF technology has already reached the 17 million-g/d mark and we are studying building a plant with unit capacities up to 20 million g/d. The constraints for building such plants are mainly on the transportation of equipment such as heat exchange tubes, but there are also constraints on the size of brine recycle pumps and control valves that have to be taken into consideration,’ says Borsani.

Fisia’s success at Ras Laffan and Shuweihat was followed up in May when it emerged as the nominated contractor for the Jebel Alidesalination expansion in Dubai. The estimated $290 million project, which covers the installation of a 70 million-g/d plant, follows up on its existing contract with Dubai Electricity & Water Authority for the preceding K station. Fisia is already installing 40 million g/d of capacity at K, and thestation award should secure its position in the Dubai market for the foreseeable future.

Although it remains a stalwart of the MSF technique, the company is not averse to the benefits of developing new technologies. The hybrid MSF and reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plant being built by South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction Company at Fujairah is a case in point. ‘Hybrid technology may have some advantages in those places where power and water consumption levels vary between winter and summer,’ says Borsani.

While Fisia has done well of late, it cannot afford to become complacent in what is a very competitive market. Saudi Arabia remains a largely untapped area for the company, which like most European engineering firms struggles to compete purely on a price basis with cheaper Asian alternatives. ‘It is not only the Koreans that are challenging competitors in this market. Prices for MSF desal units have come down over the past few years from between $8-9 per installed gallon to around $4-5. Staying in the lead in such competitive market conditions is very difficult,’ says Borsani.

But Fisia does not intend to let the competition dampen its enthusiasm to bid for forthcoming projects in the region and, in the right circumstances, invest. ‘The Gulf is a very attractive market for desalination and we expect it to continue to grow for at least another 10 years. Our target projects in the future are Jebel Ali L, which we were recently awarded, Hidd phase 3 in Bahrain and Fujairah phase 2. We may also think about investing in projects in the future,’ says Borsani.

Andy Critchlow