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Adoption of Water Innovations in the World’s Industrial Markets

As we gear up for a nice run of conferences and tradeshows this fall (DesalTech and IDA World Congress, IFOA, WEFTEC, and IWC), it will be interesting to gauge the level of “pull” we feel at these events from customers looking for new and innovative water technologies. Earlier in the year, members of the Oasys team got a similar chance to “test the waters” regarding technology innovation in a number of industrial segments across market geographies. Despite varying focus areas and locations, these conferences had common themes. In particular, they all featured sessions focused on water reuse and zero liquid discharge (ZLD) innovations and case studies, driven by regulation, operating cost reduction, and/or environmental stewardship. We have also seen distinct differences among these markets in the speed of adoption of new technologies. In fact, the SWIM conference in Boston had keynote and panel agenda items pondering the issue of driving innovation in the U.S. and worldwide water industries.

 

 

While all of the conferences featured impressive papers on the water issues their attendees were grappling with, and compelling cases for disruptive technologies that may potentially address these issues, something was missing. In real practice there are wide gaps in the speed and breadth by which the evaluation and adoption of new technologies are taking place. It appears that a number of factors contribute to the technology gaps.

 

The Chinese and U.S. Power Industries

The U.S. Power industry has an unprecedented number of new environmental regulations imposed on it in recent years, as summarized by Manitia Moultrie of Golder Associates during a workshop at the Clearwater Clean Coal Conference. The new EPA mandate, 316(b), will impact an estimated 670 power plants as it aims to regulate the water intakes and outflows of industrial plants. The pending Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) will impact a number of effluent streams generated by coal burning plants. Total carbon emissions limits are in the works as well. The number of regulations, the lack of clarity on what levels of reduction will finally be implemented, and the fact that the U.S. power industry is in a period of transition away from coal and towards natural gas and renewables, have all contributed to a “wait and see” mindset and a lack of real progress in adopting innovative technologies in a meaningful way.

The recent Supreme Court decision overturning the EPA’s mercury emission regulation also contributes to this attitude. In comparison, the Power and Coal-to-Chemical (CTX) industries in China have had both broad emissions control regulations imposed for nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulfer oxide (SOx), and a broad ZLD regulation as well. These industries in China are expanding, new plants are being built, and these projects can be planned and funded with new technologies designed to meet the new air and water emissions regulations. The guidelines of the new regulations are clear, helping companies adopt innovative and more energy-efficient technologies such as Forward Osmosis (FO), for example. State-run technology design institutes have been set up to work with plant owners and operators to vet out new and potentially cost-saving technologies. Innovative financing models have been adopted, such as the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model Beijing Woteer will adopt for systems at the Yangmei Taihua CTX facility. As a result, new projects and innovations in the areas of industrial water reuse and ZLD are growing rapidly in the China Power and CTX industries and the results will have a profound impact on water use in those industries in a relatively short time. Clearly the water scarcity issues in China, especially in the coal belt regions where a number of new projects have begin, are more severe than in the U.S., providing another strong incentive for rapid adoption of new technologies.

 

The Canadian Oil Industry

Innovation was the central theme at the COSIA Innovation Summit, an annual event occurring every other Spring in Banff, Alberta. COSIA is an industry consortium made up of the 13 largest Oil Sands mining companies operating in the Northern Alberta province. The conference focused on technologies and processes for adoption in four key areas for the consortium: Air, Water, Land and Tailings.

The Water category is a major area of emphasis for Oil Sands companies. Their main interest focuses on steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), a method of bitumen extraction commonly practiced in the industry. SAGD bitumen removal is based on the operation of large central water purification and recycling plants in the remote Canadian tundra. These plants pump steam deep underground to soften and extract thick, heavy, tar-like oil. This is an expensive way to drill for oil compared to alternate methods in other parts of the world and innovations that can improve energy consumption, reliability, pretreatment chemical usage or water recovery are extremely valuable.

The drop in crude oil prices worldwide, however, has dampened investment in new oil sands capacity and in new technologies for water recovery or other water plant process flow improvements. The individual drilling and mining operations in the oil sands region are regulated by permitted annual water extraction allowances and by discharge limitations. In the current economic environment, as long as an operating or planned facility can work within these extraction and discharge limits, investment in technology improvements can be delayed until oil prices and profitability improve. Here we find another contrast to China and its evolving CTX industry. These are, of course, widely differing industries, based on different raw materials, but at the end of the day, both are developing due to worldwide needs for petrochemicals based on local supplies of carbon-based natural resources. The severity of water scarcity in China’s coal-rich regions and the demand for potable water in the country have resulted in more stringent legislation accompanying the growth of the CTX industry. All new plants are required to include ZLD and water recovery technologies in their plans and the technology design institutes, involved in plant design with the primarily State-owned energy companies, have advocated for innovative technologies to be incorporated. Some of the largest membrane-based ZLD plants ever designed will be installed in CTX plants in the next few years.

 

The Indian Water Industry

Finally, regions of severe water scarcity in India, such as Tamil Nadu, have instituted ZLD requirements on small, medium and large industrial plants as a way to reduce river pollution and manage water industrial and agricultural water demands. These regulations have been in place since the mid-2000s for facilities within five kilometers of a stressed or polluted river system. Companies at that time installed ZLD facilities designed around best known practices at the time and have been improving and optimizing the performance over time, based on innovations in pretreatment, brine concentration and reuse. In this case, and similar to China’s handling of legislation of their coal power and CTX industries, the State Government of Tamil Nadu enacted strong, direct legislation to battle a serious water issue in the region. Over the 10 years since, India ZLD facilities have been included in annual awards and recognition by the water industry, such as in the 2030 Water Resources Group’s “Top 10 Industrial Water Stewardship” citation.

“Necessity is the mother of all invention” may not directly apply to these cases, but in China and India, where the severity of water scarcity in regions where population, agriculture and heavy industry compete for fresh water, you will find the strictest water recovery and ZLD regulations along with the earliest adoption of advanced technologies on an industrial scale. More stringent regulation of the U.S. power industry in general, and coal power in particular, is in the works as consideration of new technologies for water reuse are on the rise. Adoption to commercial scale operation is destined to be in a second wave, behind the most severely impacted regions of the world.

 


     Written By John Tracy, Director of Marketing

John has worked at Oasys for just about a year and enjoys being a bridge between the commercial world and the technical world of advanced water treatment. He’s a million mile flyer on United Airlines but prefers time on the north shore of MA, on the water or on land, with his wife and teenage boys. John has an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University and a Masters in Business from Northeastern University, and is a board member of the American Membrane Technology Association (AMTA).