The supplying of the troops at Suakim and in the Soudan with water is one of the most important items in the whole conduct of the Egyptian war. Even in cold or temperate latitudes fresh water is a first necessity for animal life; much more is this the case in the desert; and the wells in the country forming the scene of our military operations form in themselves valuable strategical points. Their supply, however, has to be supplemented, and to do so artificial means and the aid of the engineer have to be enlisted into this service.
Many of our readers see notices from time to time in the newspapers about this or that ship being employed, or at least her steam fittings, in distilling water for the use of the troops; and although most of, if not all, our readers are engineers, still it is no disparagement to some of them to assume that they are more or less unfamiliar with sea water distillation on the scale on which the process is now being carried on at Suakim; and as the subject is of general interest, we give a short description of the process.
In a general sense, fresh water is obtained from sea water by simply generating steam from the sea water, passing the said steam through a surface condenser, and filtering the resulting water. The obtaining of fresh water in this way has been in practice on board sea-going ships for many years. It is supposed by some authorities on this subject that the first time fresh water was thus obtained at sea was by an old captain of a brig which ran short of water, and he cut up some pewter dishes into strips, which he bent and soldered into a pipe. He, with the carpenter's aid, fitted a wooden lid in one of the cooking boilers, and fixed one end of his pipe in it. He next sawed a water cask in half, bored a hole in the bottom of one half, and took his pipe through it, filling the space round the pipe with sea water. Thus he extemporized a worm and still or condenser. The distilled water, however, was scarcely drinkable. Not to be beaten, however, the captain got some pieces of charred wood which he put in the water, which so far improved it as to render it at all events fit to sustain life, and our skipper brought his brig and her screw safely to port. What suggested the use of charcoal to his mind history does not tell.
For many years past scarce any sea-going vessel leaves port that is not fitted with a properly constructed distiller; and one conspicuous advantage attending this practice is that each ship thus fitted to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade inspector is allowed to sail with only half the quantity of fresh water on board which she should have if not provided with a distiller. The distiller and filter occupy very much less space than that which would be occupied by the casks or tanks of water otherwise required to be carried.
Coming now a little to detail, sea water distillers are usually fitted in connection with the winch and its boiler, which latter supplies the steam both for distillation and to drive the engine working its circulating pump. Smaller distillers are worked without a pump, the cooling water merely passing through by gravitation. These smaller affairs again are of two kinds, the one being mounted at one end of the cooking hearth, as in outline sketch, which shows a two oven hearth with distiller at one end. A is the supply pipe to admit air to aerate the water; B is the cock where fresh water is drawn off; C is a pipe conveying cooling water to the condenser E, placed on three little feet on top of the boiler, F, whose steam rises up a central pipe to the dome top, where it expands out and returns downward through a number of tubes about 1 in. diameter, in which it is condensed, collected in a bottom chamber, and drawn off through the cock, B. A distiller of this size would make about thirty gallons of fresh water per day. Very frequently a distiller, such as is shown in the sketch, is mounted separately, and placed near the winch or donkey boiler, which supplies it with steam, the lower part, F, being then used as a filter.
The diameter of E is from 15 in. to 18 in., the outer casing being either iron or copper. Another form of distiller is one like the above, but larger, and having a small donkey engine and circulating pump attached thereto. As a rule these distillers are vertical, but larger apparatus are arranged horizontally. To give our readers some general idea of size, weight, and produce of water, we may say that a plain cylindrical distiller, mounted on a square filter case, measuring 3 ft. 9 in. high, weighing 4½ cwt., will distill twelve gallons per hour. A larger size, measuring 6 ft. 2 in. high, and weighing about 23 cwt., will give 85 gallons; while a still larger one, measuring 7 ft. high and weighing 32 cwt., yields 150 gallons. These have no pumps. When an engine and pump are fitted, the weight is increased from about 80 per cent. in the smaller to 50 per cent. in the larger sizes. An immense advantage attends the use of those distillers that are combined with a winch boiler. Of course, the chief use of the winch is while in dock; some use is made of it at sea to do heavy pulling and hauling, to wash decks, and in case of emergency the circulating pump is used as a fire engine. Were it not, however, for the distiller, the winch boiler would simply be idle lumber at sea.
The distiller, however, finds useful employment for it, and has also this excellent effect, that as steam is pretty constantly kept up for the distiller, in the evil event of a fire the boiler is ready to work at once. In horizontal types of distiller an engine and pump are mounted on a cast iron casing as a bed, and in this casing is placed a number of tubes through which the steam passes to be condensed, the whole being simply a surface condenser with engine and pump above. Another type is that of a small single-flued horizontal boiler with combustion chamber and twenty or thirty return tubes - in fact, the present high-pressure marine boiler on a small scale. A boiler of this sort, measuring 4 ft. to 5 ft. long, 3 ft. 9 in. to 4 ft. 6 in. diameter, would have a horizontal donkey engine on a bed at its side, and at the end of the engine a vertical cylindrical condenser.
Few have done more, perhaps none so much, as Dr. Normandy to make sea water distillation not only a success as a source of water supply, but also to supply it at a minimum cost for fuel. He by a peculiar arrangement of pipes embodied something of the regenerative system in his apparatus, using the heat taken from one lot of steam to generate more, and again the heat from this he used over again. The defect of his older arrangements was undue complexity and consequent trouble to keep in order.
As can be well imagined, the distillers in use at Suakim are on a much more colossal scale, and owing to the now almost universal use of surface condensers in ocean steamers, no great difficulty ought to attend the adaptation of the boilers and condensers of one of our transports. One of these full-powered steamers will indicate, say, 5,000 horse-power, and assuming her engines to use 25 lb. of steam per indicated horse-power, or 2¼ gallons, she could distill some 12,000 gallons of water per hour. As no appreciable pressure of steam need be maintained, the boilers would suffer little from deposit, especially if regularly blown out. Hard firing need not be resorted to; indeed, it would be injudicious, as, of course, priming must be carefully guarded against. Of course, the salt water distilled will affect the working, not exactly of the distillers, but of the boilers. If the water in the harbor, as is not improbable, is muddy, some method of filtering it before pumping it into the boilers ought, if at all practicable, to be resorted to, for the twofold reason of preserving the boiler plates from muddy deposit, and also to prevent priming, which would certainly ensue from the use of muddy water.
No doubt the medical staff take care that the distilled water is alike thoroughly aerated and efficiently filtered. The most successful method of aerating is, we believe, to cause the current of steam as it enters the condenser to suck in air by induced current along with it. The filtering ought not to present any difficulty, as at all events sand enough can be had. Charcoal, however, is another affair, and all distilled water ought to be brought into contact with this substance.
Simple, however, as such an arrangement as this appears to be, practical difficulties, which it is said are insurmountable, stand in the way of its adoption, and the distilled water produced for Egypt is made in special apparatus, and various forms of condenser are employed, made under various patents. The principle involved is, however, in all cases the same. Steam is generated in one of the ships' boilers, and condensed, filtered, and aerated in a special apparatus. The great objection to the use of the ordinary surface condenser is that the main engines would, in the majority of cases, have to be kept going, in order to pump the distilled water out of the condenser, and to supply circulating water. But it is easy to see that if engineers thought proper, this difficulty could be readily got over. Separate circulating pumps, usually centrifugal, are now freely used, and the addition of a special pump for lifting the condensed water presents no difficulty whatever. While the main engines are running, the withdrawal of much condensed water would no doubt risk the safety of the boiler; but in the case of so-called "distilling" ships, there need be no trouble incurred on this score. - The Engineer.