I’m in effluents. Nice to meet you

Waste water treatment

You know what it’s like when you’re on a plane or train and you have to do some work but a fellow passenger wants to engage you in conversation. “What brings you to this part of the world?” they ask. “What do you do?” For me, the quickest way to get back to work is to answer: “I’m in effluents and industrial waste water.” As a conversation-killer this typically does the job. It is also a fairly accurate description of what I do for a living. If, on the other hand, I say that I work in the water-energy nexus (also accurate), then a lengthy discussion might follow and I wouldn’t get any work done.

I’ll certainly be in a conversational mood at this publication’s annual symposium in London this month where I’ll be moderating a seminar on the water-energy nexus. Please join me. But be warned, effluents will be on the menu.

Too often the conversation about the water-energy nexus focuses on the obvious fact that you need water to create energy and energy to create (or treat) water. Instead I want to focus on water-energy symbiosis.

I’ll be joined by a client, Florian Bollen, who is a director of memsys, the Singaporean-German high efficiency distillation technology business that elegantly converts several vile effluents into pure water. GE has licensed its technology for shale gas waste waters. memsys can also do wonders for the efficiency of diesel generators, which are the unseen off-grid energy infrastructure of the world’s many island nations. Typically, island also live off the water grid, i.e. they have to desalinate their own water and cannot rely on mains water taken for granted in developed cities.

If you run the cooling loop of a diesel generator through memsys’ membrane distillation units, it improves the efficiency of the generator to such an extent that it can more than pay for the energy required to desalinate water. Bollen, who is a veteran Hollywood film producer with Arnold Schwarzenegger among his former collaborators, calls this “energy positive desalination”, which raises eyebrows among his engineer colleagues. They point out that he may have created Terminator 3, but you can’t create energy. I sit on the fence by calling it symbiosis in the energy water nexus. This may sound a bit pretentious, but it is to the point.

The most exciting exit in the water-energy nexus so far this year is Korean chemical company LG’s pending $200m acquisition of NanoH20, a Californian nanotech-enabled low energy desalination business whose investors in a $40m equity round two years ago included Total Energy Ventures. The exact details of the Total-NanoH20 deal remain confidential, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Total has secured good commercial terms for the use of the technology on top of what looks like a good financial return. Symbiosis indeed! Francois Badoual, head of Total Energy Ventures, will be among the symposium speakers in London. I’ll try to drag him along to my session.

Such exits only increase the water industry’s infatuation with the oil industry. Water sees oil as a high growth market which will compensate for the doldrums of municipal water. While not quite reciprocating this infatuation, the oil industry and its corporate venture units are increasingly interested in water and are looking keenly at new water technology companies.

In the short to medium term, the biggest winners could be the water service companies, such as Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies and GE Water, which respectively have partnering and venturing units working with water tech start-ups. My seminar will be joined by at least one of them. I hope to see you there.

Disclosure: Veolia Water Solutions and Technologies and memsys are clients.

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