A clear need for water
New technologies are making it easier and less expensive to clean, manage, protect and waste less of life-giving liquid we take for granted
Natural resources, agriculture and manufacturing. Many of North America’s strongest industries are also its most water intensive. Increased awareness around risks – water scarcity, for example – brings fear into the heart of many a manufacturer. But where they see failure, David Henderson sees opportunity.
“We get a dual benefit by investing in water innovation,” says the managing director of water investment firm XPV Capital. “It will increase the productivity of our key sectors and, at the same time, create a whole new generation of companies that can export their water solutions around the world.”
Laura Shenkar of the San Francisco-based Artemis Project agrees. She says that water technologies represent the next wave (no pun intended) of high-growth tech investments.
The Artemis Top 50 Water Tech Listing began as an initiative to prove to the investment community that there is a critical mass of water companies worthy of venture capital investments, Shenkar explains. The sector is bolstered by reports that project these disruptive technologies and business models will yield profits as revenues in the water industry approach US$1 trillion by 2020.
Shenkar and Henderson believe that many successful next-generation technologies exist to refine traditional systems and solutions. The real game-changers are often relatively simple ideas that make tweaks for added efficiency – adding a sensor to collect data here, developing a less energy-intensive filtration membrane there. Here are examples of how new tech is tackling some of the world’s biggest water challenges with just a few small adjustments.
At its most basic level of human use, water needs to be drinkable. Much of North America’s large supply of freshwater is teeming with biological and chemical contaminants from a wide range of sources, such as urban and agricultural runoff, industrial effluent, and human and animal waste. To get water to a potable point, we need to identify potentially harmful ingredients. But traditional testing methods are slow and sometimes fussy. Before we can determine what to remove from a water supply, samples must go through incubation periods and specific temperatures.
Researchers like University of Waterloo’s Janusz Pawliszyn recognize the need for faster, more accurate samples. His team developed the solid-phase microextraction (SPME) technology, which skips a lengthy phase of sample preparation and allows field researchers to monitor and analyze samples on site. Working with Canadian environmental laboratory Maxxam Analytics, Pawliszyn’s team is striving to make the process more cost-effective, which could open the technology to developing countries with large populations that suffer from waterborne disease.
Public health risk, however, doesn’t stop at the treatment plant. In North America, aging or poorly maintained drinking water systems lose millions of gallons of treated water every year. Not only are the systems leaking – some estimates say that Montreal loses up to 40 per cent of its drinking water en route to taps – they’re opening the door to contamination and infrastructure catastrophes.
Limited municipal budgets are just one reason we’re having more frequent sinkholes. In many cases, the real problem is that cities don’t have a clue where and when they’re leaking. The problem is data deficiency, and the solution is better intelligence.
Automation and data-gathering technologies are the way forward, says Dave Woollums of Mueller Co. The company’s recent acquisitions – such as Ontario’s Echologics, which uses acoustic technology to detect leaks and assess the condition of water pipes without breaking ground – focus on these areas.
“We’re working on embedding intelligence into devices that have, in the past, been dumb mechanical products,” says Woollums, Mueller’s vice-president of research, development and engineering. “By placing pressure sensors in strategic valves in a system, for instance, we can reduce energy consumption and leakage, and extend the time before utilities have to repair leaks in pipelines.”