Author Archives: Reka Sumangali

Siemens’ low-energy desal system – Deal or no deal?

At Singapore’s International Water Week conference in July, Siemens announced the results of its low-energy electrodialysis desalination system. The project for the Singapore government targeted energy usage of just 1.5 kWh/m3, which is near the theoretical limit* for desalination technology. Siemens operated the Singapore plant for the last three years, and during that period reduced its energy consumption to 1.7 kWh/m3. However, they explained to Lux that the system’s opex and capex still needed improvement to be truly competitive with seawater reverse osmosis (RO). Contractually, failing to reach the 1.5 kWh/m3 target holds no penalty. Siemens said that it had completed optimization of the plant, but added that it’s still working in the lab to reduce costs. It aims to unveil the product of that work in 12 months to 24 months.

In learning more about this technology, some things stood out to us. First, the system’s membrane is 10 times more expensive than the threshold for cost effectiveness. This is especially striking given that it’s an off-the-shelf product with no modifications. In addition, the system achieved a relatively low freshwater recovery of 35%. Although electrodialysis systems are not expected to require as much pretreatment as reverse osmosis, this system operated behind an existing ultrafiltration membrane, signifying a best-case scenario. Further, this solely Siemens-driven effort created more than 100 invention disclosures, suggesting the project is at least as much research as development.

While Siemens has proven it is possible to approach the theoretical limits of energy use for desalination using electrodialysis, it has yet to prove it can do so in a cost effective way. Without this, it is unlikely this system will see the widespread implementation implied from the buzz surrounding its press release.

* Client registration required.

GE and partners back Emefcy’s energy-positive water treatment technology

Late last month, Energy Technology Ventures (a joint venture between GE, NRG Energy, and ConocoPhilips) announced plans to invest an undisclosed amount in Israeli company Emefcy. Additional investors included Pond Venture Partners, Plan B Ventures, and Israel Cleantech Ventures.

Emefcy has developed a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that uses naturally-occurring bacteria in an electrogenic bioreactor to treat wastewater and generate electricity. It works by using bacteria to biologically oxidize organic chemicals dissolved in wastewater. Specifically, the bacteria release electrons, free protons, and CO2 as part of their metabolic processes. The electrons are captured by the anode, while the free protons combine with oxygen that permeates the cathode to make water and complete the electrical circuit.

In effect, Emefcy’s technology harvests renewable energy directly from wastewater. This, the company claims, is less energy-intensive than conventional aerobic processes or methane-producing anaerobic digestion, and enables an energy-positive wastewater treatment plant. According to both Emefcy and Energy Technology Ventures, the benefits of this technology are both economic and environmental. In its release, Emefcy states that “conventional wastewater treatment uses 2% of global power capacity (80,000 megawatts and 57,000,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide), costing $40 billion per year.”

While GE’s interest in the technology is remarkable, arch competitor Siemens reported in a poster session at this week’s Singapore International Water Week that it is in the process of building its own pilot scale MFC.

Emefcy’s target markets include wastewater treatment in the food and beverage, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. We estimate that the addressable market size is $4.25 billion, comparable to that of membrane bioreactors plus conventional aerobic treatment equipment. The company plans to use Energy Technology Ventures’ investment to further develop the technology into a full-scale commercial plant by the end of this year “for municipal and industrial wastewater treatment,” said Emefcy’s CEO Eytan Levy.

GE is a large player in wastewater treatment, and is expanding its technology focus on Israel, calling it the “Silicon Valley of water technology.” In fact, GE recently opened its newest research and development center in Haifa, which will partner with local technology companies and universities to develop clean energy, water, and healthcare technologies. GE is also partnering with Kinrot Ventures, an incubator company that’s based in Israel and active in the water space.

Siemens’ acquisition strategically adds value to its membrane business

In a continuation of Siemens’ membrane-related acquisitions and internal developments in its water business, Siemens Water Technology announced its acquisition this month of the Clearlogx Process chemical feed system from MarMac Water LLC. The Clearlogx system is an automated chemical feed system that enhances organic contaminant removal in water and wastewater. The system’s proprietary controlled release of acid, coagulant, and chlorine reduces membrane fouling and the formation of disinfection byproduct. What is especially interesting is that combining coagulants with a membrane system will result in a more efficient treatment technology.

In our report earlier this year titled “Filtering out growth prospects in the $1.5 billion membrane market” (client registration required) we noted that fouling is the top issue plaguing membrane-treatment systems. So, improving fouling resistance for membranes would allow the technology to gain significant market share. Multi-functional membranes and membrane systems combine multiple technology solutions that can both filter out contaminants from wastewater as well as remove them – either by killing, dissolving, or breaking them down. Often, we see membrane companies pair with a chemical disinfectant or precipitation technology provider to offer customers a more complete treatment train. For large companies, developing such systems is even easier, and the Clearlogx acquisition provides the Siemens’ Memcor membrane system with chemicals that can reduce membrane fouling so they can treat greater volumes of wastewater with membranes that have increased life. Because of the added functionality, we expect to see growth of Memcor’s presence in pharmaceutical and food and beverage process water treatment.

Which water technology will help unlock offshore oil and gas reserves?

Graphic of the weekAlong with the crude oil and natural gas that fuels modern civilization, the energy industry brings nearly 233 billion barrels of wastewater from beneath the earth’s surface every year. This so-called “produced water” can contain a variety of contaminants – from oil and grease to chemicals, micro-organisms, and radioactive elements. The need to treat this water before disposal or reuse has attracted a multitude of technology developers clambering to tackle the challenge. This week’s graphic ranks 29 companies developing solutions for offshore produced water treatment.

Offshore oil platforms are a wholly different kettle of fish than onshore rigs. Clearly, offshore technologies must fit within strict confines, making large treatment systems simply unfeasible. Plus, disposal options are limited for offshore produced water. Generally it is just discharged into the ocean, and regulation around contaminant levels is strictly enforced. Energy exploration and production companies are required to send monthly discharge samples for testing. Regulation for offshore produced water discharge is mainly focused on dissolved and dispersed hydrocarbon content. This last factor helps explain the favorable position of MyCelx Technologies Corporation and Abtech Industries. Both companies derive their high technical score for developing hydrocarbon absorbing polymer technology, which suits for the size and contaminant considerations of offshore treatment.

Veolia MPPE occupies the Dominant quadrant in several of the report’s figures, including this one. In the case of offshore treatment, the company’s position is due in part to applications in the North Sea, which has the most strict discharge limits of less than 20 ppm of hydrocarbons allowed and a “no damage requirement,” which Veolia’s system is able to address. The challenge with absorbants is that they produce waste (sponge or beads) that also needs to be managed. For this reason, advanced oxidation and coarse filtration are other technologies applied to this market segment.

Renewables gain popularity in desalination applications

It is no secret that water from desalination provides the lifeblood for many countries in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia chief among them. About a year ago, the country opened its 28th desalination facility, the Jubail II, which produces 800,000 m3 per day. While desalination provides a solution for the region’s water needs – at least it’s domestic and industrial water needs – only some countries, such as Saudi Arabia with its vast oil reserves, have the energy resources to sustain these facilities. However, even these abundant energy sources are finite – and indeed peaking in terms of production – and will not long provide the cheap power necessary to run desal plants. The situation will only become more acute as more desalination plants are constructed.

The combination of renewable power, particularly solar power in the sundrenched Middle East, and desalination may prove the perfect symbiotic relationship. Solar power’s detractors have noted that its intermittency, demand for large expanses and cost all make it ill-suited for conventional electricity generation. However, desalination plants don’t necessarily require high capacity power, as the product water is easily stored. Furthermore, the Middle East is replete with large empty tracts of high insolation land. The last barrier, cost, is also eroding as PV prices tumble globally; cost is now also one of the major focuses of The Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC).

Even so, concentrated solar power (CSP) – a form of solar energy generation that uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays and create heat – is emerging as the most alluring renewable power solution for desal in the bright Middle East. Tunisia water utility SONEDE is considering solar power for a series of small brackish water desalination plants in its southern provinces, while Morocco’s bulk water provider Office National de l’Eau Potable (ONEP) has ambitious plans to build a 9,000 m3/d pilot desalination/CSP plant in Tan Tan in the south of the country. As discussed (see April 22, 2010 LRWJ – client registration required) Saudi Arabia is also actively pursuing the use of CSP to power a 30,000 m3/d desalination in conjunction with IBM. In short, new opportunities are arising in sundrenched but water poor regions of the world, even as CSP and renewables in general face new hurdles in developed nations and debt-ridden sovereigns pull back on generous subsidies.

BP oil spill continues to provide opportunities for new technology applications

It has been over two months since British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded, creating a massive oil spill along the Gulf coast. Earlier, we discussed BP’s use of Corexit, a chemical that breaks down the oil slick for bacterial consumption, or sinks it into the water to prevent it from reaching the shore. In that discussion, we noted Corexit’s potential health risks to humans, as well as marine life and water fowl.

Critics of how the massive oil slick has been handled so far have noted the technologies deployed to counter it are the same technologies used for the last several decades. Though many new technologies offer alternatives, many hurdles remain before a complete solution is found.

Part of the slowdown in adopting new technologies for this spill is that the process for vetting them requires analysis and approval from BP, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as other U.S. agencies. With the U.S. government taking charge it is unclear whether we can expect further “red tape” delays. The one silver lining is that all parties involved are entertaining the flood of new ideas and suggestions coming into the help lines – even those in the early stages of field testing – which could provide a potential market for a myriad of new technologies.

In the last several weeks many new technologies, especially companies with non-chemical water treatment technologies, have tried their hand at solving the problem. For example, Ecosphere Technologies has already gained approval from BP and is awaiting approvals from government agencies to deploy its Ozonix Systems, which uses an advanced oxidation process for water treatment. In an interesting convergence, actor Kevin Costner – star of the post-apocalyptic movie Waterworld – has privately funded the development of a centrifugal device with Ocean Therapy Solutions, which BP has approved for testing on the oil spill. The technology separates oil from water, stores it in tankers and returns purified water back to the gulf. John Houghtaling, chief executive of Ocean Therapy Solutions, claims that the largest of his company’s machines can separate oil from water at a rate of 200 gallons per minute.

Meanwhile, other companies fielding clean-up technologies – like MyCelx, AbTech Industries, and Gradek Energy – have since moved away from treating oil spills because of the approvals barriers. However, the Deepwater Horizon spill is also providing opportunities for software solutions and sensor technologies that help guide clean-up efforts. Software technologies that track the movement oil spills have an easier path into this market because they provide ongoing monitoring capability with lower capital costs, and we expect minimal regulatory hurdles given the nature of the services.