Water treatment has changed from being almost an afterthought into a critical issue for many chemical makers. For instance, companies such as Dow and Air Products have set ambitious water-conservation goals. In addition, Dow and BASF, both of which not only operate large plants but also produce water treatment membranes, are making technological advances. Progress also is occuring at other vendors such as GE Water and Process Technologies and Suez Advanced Solutions U.K., and in academia such as at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden.
The scale of the water treatment challenge reflects the broader issues of water availability and quality, notes Tracy Young, core R&D program director for the consumer and infrastructure solutions division of Dow Chemical, Midland, Mich. “According to the United Nations, by 2030, it is estimated that our world will need 30% more water, 45% more energy and 50% more food to keep up with rising populations, affluence and demand,” she notes.
The water treatment issues facing the chemical industry are changing and becoming increasingly challenging, believes Peter Macios, executive product manager, water and process technologies for GE Water and Process Technologies, Trevose, Pa.: “With increased regulation, environmental shifts, concerns with water scarcity, and ongoing cost pressures, we are seeing our customers look more closely at the use of impaired waters for open evaporation cooling systems. For example, there is increased interest in having technical evaluations done on the use of municipal reclaim water.”
Dow’s response to this challenge is its 2025 Sustainability Goals, which focus on redefining the role of business in sustainability through leadership and action — working together at the intersection of business, government and society to help drive the transition to a more sustainable planet and society. (See: “Sustainability Metric Spurs Efforts.”)
To this end, the company is promoting projects that advance a circular economy in water reuse by tackling the problem in three main areas: leading collaborations, providing water treatment technologies that minimize fresh water intake, and enabling the use of recycled water and alternative models for beneficial water reuse.
One area of particular focus for the company is the Middle East, where the imbalance between water supply and demand is particularly acute. In November, Dow announced the expansion of its facilities at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Research & Technology Park, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, with the construction of a new Middle East R&D center.
“We already have a large reverse osmosis (RO) pilot system with advanced analytics in Saudi Arabia and are also carrying out research into how to deal with the fouling issues in this region, for example, by developing new anti-fouling coatings,” notes Young.
One problem specific to the Arabian Gulf is the red tide events caused by algal blooms. This mandates pretreating the seawater using filtration technology to ensure reverse osmosis (RO) works at peak efficiency.
“In fact, we look at the whole operating protocol here, including biocides, filtration pretreatments and RO. We are supplying the whole solution and central to this is the resin and compounds used in the process. So we are working very closely with KAUST to develop membranes and fibers with improved permeabilities that can handle this harsh environment — that’s the importance of applied research,” she adds.
Dow has seven R&D facilities worldwide, allowing both its researchers and customers to simulate, test and optimize water treatment and reuse more broadly and effectively. For example, the center in Spain has enabled the company’s Tarragona plant to use Filmtec ECO RO membranes to treat and re-use municipal wastewater. The plan here is to use up to 90% reclaimed water at the site in coming years.
“Filmtec ECO RO membranes are the first product in a next-generation portfolio of more sustainable, higher-efficiency membranes that facilitates lower energy usage and reduced regeneration costs,” says Young, who adds that over the next ten years they will help produce over 10 billion m3 of clean water around the world.