What Difference Does A New Water Treatment Invention Make?

By Mike Henley


But, does it make a difference? For water treatment, that question is highly relevant—when making decisions to buy new or updated equipment, and when a water business decides whether or not to commercialize a new invention.

In part, these comments follow observations from the February editorial on www.ultrapurewater.com. As noted then, we intend to take a deeper look at the state of research and development (R&D) in today’s water business, and we’ve now begun the process, but it is too early for our report.

The opening question was raised during a visit with an executive at the Water Quality Association (WQA) annual conference conducted in Nashville during mid-March. His point was that in order to be useful that a new invention should not only advance water treatment technology in some way but also show the promise of becoming commercially viable. 

While at the WQA, we invested some time in conversations with several company representatives about the subject of R&D. Each year, the WQA conference exhibit hall contains an interesting mix of companies. One will find exhibitors whose business interests span everything from residential, municipal, commercial, and industrial to high-purity water. Yet, on the other side, there are highly focused firms whose primary involvement is the residential drinking water market through softeners or sink and shower filters. Sprinkled into the mix are a few companies that provide financial services for home drinking water systems.

During the conference, we had a chance to start our research through conversations with some companies that seek to regularly bring new developments to the water treatment marketplace.

One visit was with an R&D director (whom this writer has known for many years) at a membrane maker. We spoke awhile about his company’s product development process, which essentially is to take its new membrane inventions and to then find related applications beyond the original use. R&D has and continues to play an important role at this firm—whether in the development of a unique invention, or in one that represents an incremental development to existing technologies.

In another visit, we spoke with staff at a company now offering a newly commercialized way to improve the filtering qualities of diatomaceous earth (DE) through the use of a patented coating that will improve the ability of DE filters to attract and retain colloidal particles. This latest improvement follows a different type of invention by the company a few years ago that has resulted in a technology to improve depth filters.

These are two of many examples in the water field of the fruits an active R&D program can yield. But, R&D without practical applications yields little profit for the equipment/parts supplier. So, we will close with how treatment technology effectiveness and commercial value work together in answering the question we started with.

We will briefly consider two different scenarios.

In Scenario 1, we have a pharmaceutical plant looking to upgrade part of the treatment system that produces water for injection (WFI). There is an existing distillation system needing to be replaced. One option is to install new thermal distillation equipment. Option 2 would be to switch over to membrane systems as now permitted in the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). So, the decision makers are faced with a choice: stay with the tried-and-proven method, or use a newer technology now allowed by the USP. (Please note, we realize membranes are not new, but for some uses they may be a “new” approach now allowed by regulations such as in this case as spelled out in the USP.)

In Scenario 2, we have a manufacturing plant expanding operations, and putting in a new boiler that requires a deionized (DI) water quality, meaning the use of ion exchange (IX) treatment. The catch, though, is that the IX treatment may be accomplished by traditional resin vessels with in-house or off-site regeneration. Or, alternatively, electrodeionization (EDI) can offer an alternative, since it, too, will provide the needed water quality. So, the decision may come down to questions such as these in the small table below:

Sample Questions for Consideration when Deciding between IX and EDI




·         Cost difference between off-site or on-site resin regeneration?

·         Expected resin life before replacement?

·         Maintenance requirements?

·         Pretreatment needs?

·         Are there specialty IX resins that would work well for the incoming water quality issues?

·         Environmental compliance issues from regen waste or water use from resin rinsing after regeneration?

·         Expected savings because regeneration is unnecessary?

·         Equipment cost compared to conventional IX system?

·         Is the newer EDI technology preferable to an earlier version?

·         Expected equipment life?

·         Maintenance requirements/issuers?’

·         Pretreatment needs? Do they result in an additional cost compared to conventional IX?

·         Environmental compliance advantages?


Please note, the questions in the table are examples, and a full technical review would explore these and other issues in a much deeper fashion.

The point of Scenarios 1 and 2 is to show that far more goes into water technology choices and final decisions than if the treatment approach is “cutting edge”, now allowed by regulations (e.g., the use of reverse osmosis for pharma WFI), or driven by experience with a particular technology.

So, in conclusion, of course R&D is important, but so is the answer to the question we began with (paraphrased): “What difference for water treatment does a new invention make?”

— Mike Henley



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