Always Learning and Other Keys to Water Treatment Success
By Mike Henley
Glacial, yet fluid. In the context of the high-purity and industrial water worlds, there is an element of truth to each word as applied to water treatment practices, the associated technologies, and the related businesses.
Let’s briefly define each aspect.
Glacial refers simply to the fact that the development and acceptance of new water treatment practices takes time, and that some enduser industries are reluctant to try different approaches until a new technology has a proven record of success. One example would be the power industry’s slow acceptance of reverse osmosis (RO) when the technology emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, ion exchange (IX) was considered reliable and power industry generally preferred to stick with it.
So, while RO’s initial use in many power stations took years to happen, the technology found ready acceptance in microelectronics plants. Why? In part, because the semiconductor industry was also new and willing to try newly emerging technologies. So, for RO, the outcome was that the technology’s adoption by endusers in the microelectronics industry and seawater desalination helped to spur its acceptance. Through these and other uses, RO gained an operating history, and today is widely used and has even come to hold an important role in the power industry water treatment.
So the lesson is that while promising technologies like RO, electrodeionization (EDI), and others have found their place in the industrial and high-purity water worlds, that the adoption process takes time and is frustrating for those who want quick acceptance. Today, there are newer technologies needing to develop a history of success before they enter the wider high-purity and industrial water treatment world. There are many, of which forward osmosis, specialty forms of membranes, and LED ultraviolet would be examples. For these and others, the key to wider acceptance also entails developing a history of successful operation, and overcoming technical concerns.
Fluid simply refers to the evolving water business with its changes and consolidations that have occurred in recent decades. There are stable players within the industry, of which Dow Water and Process Solutions, Nalco Water (an Ecolab company), Danaher (including Pall, Hach, Trojan Technologies, and ChemTreat), Veolia, Suez, Aquatech International, GE Water & Process Technologies, Mettler-Toledo Thornton, and Evoqua Water Technologies are a few of many examples. Yet, there is also a “fluid” quality to the business as new companies emerge and then go on to either grow as sales rise, or get acquired by larger water business players. As we noted in our August commentary, there are signs that the water segment could be entering a new round of acquisitions and consolidation. Additionally, there are likely to be new public entries arising in the arena. One recent example is the September initial public offering by AquaVenture Holdings Ltd., the owner of Seven Seas Water and Quench.
The question about the future is twofold: Will we mostly see existing players in high-purity and industrial water moving to enhance their business positions? Or, will outside companies move to enter the business. LG is an example of the latter as it purposefully began to develop a water business in-house a few years back, and since has bought NanoH2O.
On the technology front, the lesson to be learned is that there can be and are better ways to treat water. On the pretreatment side, coagulation and flocculation are longstanding approaches; but that does not mean more effective approaches cannot be found or do not already exist. Likewise, for deionization of water maybe a third way is the next development—one that is a hybrid, offering in one package the positives that IX, RO, and EDI respectively bring to the table.
Another takeaway is that for water companies to not become overly satisfied with their existing technologies. The temptation is to take a successful technology and to stop significant research and to instead simply enjoy the fruits of past research. There are industry observers who would argue this happened for a time with IX and even RO. The result is that either a water business snaps out of this lethargy with its successful technologies and becomes active once again with research, even looking for new applications, or the technology will simply become a commodity.
When USFilter was being assembled by Richard Heckmann in the 1990s, there were several acquisitions that were shells of their former selves. Yet USFilter saw hidden value in these companies and their legacy technologies. One may argue the merits, but the strategy ultimately proved successful as USFilter was bought by Vivendi, and then Siemens before it became known as Evoqua Water Technologies.
So, this lesson is simply to always be looking to expand the water company's “universe”. Essentially that means to look at other markets a company might take on and to not become overly satisfied. A good example is Lanxess, which until recently was primarily known for its IX technologies. But, now the firm also makes RO membranes.
The third takeaway seques from the second—never stop learning. Being a learner means being a student of water treatment technologies, water business trends, and even research developments of interest. Outside of corporate R&D, other ways to find out about technology developments are to follow newly issued patents, attend water treatment conferences, including our Ultrapure Water Conference, and to read about practical uses of technologies on our Ultrapure Water website.
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