I was fortunate to be able to speak with Snehal Desai this week as part of our series on our Future of Drinking Water series. Snehal, or Sne as he is commonly known, is the Global Marketing Director for Dow Water and Process Solutions. We talked about the role of industry in the overall water picture. According to the UN Environmental Program, in 2000, industry used roughly 12.2% of all water withdrawals as compared with domestic use, which accounted for 23.6% or agriculture which accounted for 64.2%. Dow Water and Process is actually involved in both industrial and residential water treatment systems, developing and delivering separation and purification technologies such as: ion exchange resins, reverse osmosis membrane technology and ultra-filtration products.
Triple Pundit: How do you and the folks at Dow view industry’s role in the growing challenge of fresh, clean water availability for people around the world?
Snehal Desai: We clearly see this as one of our main thrusts, our water business has been around for a very long time. In the early days, providing water for industrial processes seemed to be the major need. But over time the need to provide water to people has continued to rise as our sources have deteriorated. So when we look at what Dow can do in that area, we are really focused on developing, not just technologies for people that can afford them but also, how you deliver the lowest cost per gallon. We’ve been approaching that by pursuing lower energy technology. We have a very strong business in the residential sector, making and selling reverse osmosis drinking water purifiers that can be placed on the countertop or under the sink. Originally that market was centered in the US and Europe as a highly effective enhanced water purification, but now that business is booming in places like China and India where it is really viewed as a necessity. This required a great deal of innovation, working with our customers over there to adapt this technology to those markets. We’re involved in desalination for drinking water in the Middle East using reverse osmosis, sometimes with ultra-filtration as a pre-filter. Some of our ultra-filtration technology has also been extended for use in the food and pharmaceutical industries as well.
3P: This sounds like a little bit like base of the pyramid, where innovation is moving upwards from the developing world. But what you’re describing seems to be going the opposite way, moving from the developed world. I would expect that to provide some challenges when it comes to pricing.
SD: Well, if you look at the emerging middle class in India and China, they can buy a car, they can buy a TV or they can buy a water purifier. What we’re finding is that people are choosing the water appliance first, even though the pricing is not all that different than what it is here in the US.
They view it as a necessity there, because the water quality is not only poor but it is deteriorating, as the aquifers are becoming depleted, more and more salinity is creeping in, particularly in the Southern and Western parts of India. This is driving the need beyond a simple UV lamp which was effective for disinfection, but does not remove salinity.
We’re also seeing deployment of community based systems, at a village level.
3P: So this is really much more of a distributed point of use purification model as opposed to the more centralized municipal model that we have here. Do you think that’s the way it’s going to stay?
SD: Given the level of infrastructure over there, we’re seeing more of what we call the point of entry level, which you would see a shared system put in for an apartment building, which is kind of analogous to what we’re seeing in the village.
3P: So instead of seeing women walking miles everyday with a jug of water on their heads, now they can get it from across the street or down the hall. What about other areas?
SD: In Southeast Asia, there is a large deployment of water vending machines that are being placed in convenience stores, which is similar to bottled water, but at a lower price point because you’re not dealing with all the packaging.
China, on the other hand, varies by region and people are treating locally at the source in some areas, though with a strong central government, they are tackling issues at the municipal level as well.
3P: So what is Dow’s role in all this?
SD: Our technology is used in many of these cases, whether it’s municipal or on the countertop or at the point of entry. We participate in all those markets. Technologically, these products need to be more robust and more user-friendly, since they won’t be under the care of engineers as they once were.
3P: So what can we expect to see coming down the technology pipeline?
SD: The use of ultra-filtration, which can be viewed a slightly coarser version of what reverse osmosis systems can do (at the virus level as opposed to the ion level), is really starting to take hold at the municipal level and particularly in the area of water reuse. This is an emerging area that we see as critical, particularly in the industrial segment where we’re seeing in some cases, plants that want to expand and grow, but their water allocation is being held constant. The ability to reclaim and reuse their water with the help of this technology, (e.g. ultra-filtration, membrane bio-reactors and reverse osmosis systems) allows them to expand within their previous allocation. Continued development of this technology has led to higher throughputs, which saves money for our customers.
On the reverse osmosis side of the business, we have really been focused on reducing the energy requirements. The water-energy nexus is the crux of the matter for us because you need energy to provide water and you need water to provide energy. So we’re focused on chemistries and product designs that minimize the amount of energy needed. The other things we’re focused on here, is fouling resistance, product range, in terms of the kinds of things we can treat for, and robustness.
Come back for the completion of this interview tomorrow.