Dr Karl M Millauer, Senior Vice-President, Aquatech is one of the top executives in the water industry with extensive experience in management, strategy and the financial markets. Aquatech is regarded as one of the global leaders in water purification technology for industrial and infrastructure markets with a focus on desalination, water reuse, and zero liquid discharge. Dr Millauer spoke to Anoop K Menon on how the company is driving the development and application of innovative water recycle/ reuse technologies, especially in the oil and gas sector and how its thermal and membrane desalination expertise has been extended into water reuse.
Before we discuss Aquatech’s recycling and reuse solutions, could you elaborate on your desalination capabilities?
Aquatech offers both thermal and membrane desalination, which enables us to offer customers the most cost-effective option for their needs. We can supply plants based on Multi Stage Flash (MSF), Multiple Effect Distillation (MED), Mechanical Vapour Compression (MVC) and Sea Water Reverse Osmosis (SWRO) technologies. In recent years, we have supplied MED plants to Saudi Aramco for their Rabigh and Ras Tanura refineries and an SWRO plant for the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. Recently, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Federal Electricity & Water Authority (FEWA) awarded us the contract to supply a 15 MIGD SWRO desalination plant, which will provide drinking water to the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. We have mostly used SWRO because it is a cheaper technology in terms of capex and opex. Thermal desalination makes sense when you have excess steam from the power plant or excess energy. While it is regarded as more robust than RO, the biggest market share is still with SWRO. Aquatech can also supply hybrid desalination designs that incorporate MED and RO technologies. I believe there are only three or four companies in the world that can do both thermal and RO, and we are one of them.
Could you sum up your water recycle and reuse capabilities in relation to the oil and gas sector?
Our water recycle and reuse solutions can be used to treat feed sources ranging from industrial wastewater to produced water from oil fields. In the latter, we can recycle over 90% of the produced water. In downstream, we see tremendous potential for treating refinery wastewater to a standard where it can be used as process water. We can treat refinery wastewater with very efficient technology called HERO (High Efficiency Reverse Osmosis) and in combination with thermal or evaporative processes, achieve a recycling efficiency of 98%. This hybrid approach also results in systems having lower capital costs and lower life cycle costs.
While awareness of the benefits of water recycling and re-reuse is not lacking among end-user industries, the same is not reflected in terms of actual implementations. Why this mismatch?
The price of water has tremendous bearing on water recycling and re-use. If water is expensive, it is re-used, but if it is cheap or subsidised, there is no incentive to re-use. To treat wastewater in a way that makes it suitable for discharge into the environment is a question of legislation because industry doesn’t like to invest in wastewater treatment. Thus the extent of wastewater recycling/reuse in industries will be driven by a combination of price and legislation. While low cost solutions can help, the big driver will always be environmental legislation which sets limits on wastewater discharge while incentivising water re-use. Even in the Middle East, we see a trend in environmental legislation of decreasing the limits of what is allowed so that industries have to treat wastewater to certain standards.
The technologies for wastewater recycling and re-use are expensive due to the high level of treatment required, especially in the oil and gas industry. How are these costs covered?
In fact, production of oil and gas requires a lot of water. If not available at site, the companies have to use ground water or produce the water through sea water desalination and pipe that in. At the end of the day, the issue of recycle/re-use is always a commercial question. If the price of water is high enough, re-use pays off, and the costs can be amortised depending on the price per m3. In the case of wastewater, the same is difficult because wastewater treatment is an additional cost for the company. This can only be solved through legislation or limits set by the government on what and how much the companies are allowed to discharge into the environment. The emphasis should be on efficient recycling and reuse to minimise the water footprint. In refineries, energy can be generated from biogas obtained through wastewater treatment, which can also contribute to reducing the carbon footprint.
Could you comment on the efficiencies you have been able to achieve on the recycling/re-use front?
An important success parameter is the percentage of water which is recycled or re-used. In our Mukhaizna project in Oman, we have achieved 92% water recycling of the produced water. (The Mukhaizna project is the world’s largest installation for produced water reuse application utilising evaporation technology and it is also the first major application of MVC technology in the water reuse sector in the Middle East – editor). By combining it with HERO, up to 98% recycling rate can be achieved – efficiency here being the degree of recycling rate. Of course, you have one or two per cent slurry or brine left and getting rid of that is always a cost for industry. We are working to treat the brine to recover the salt so that we can make some product out of it like feedstock for chemical industries, which will reduce the cost for the client. It is very complicated when you have high TDS, high salt content and lots of other things.
Could you also elaborate on Aquatech’s mobile wastewater treatment solutions for the oil and gas industry?
Our MoVap unit is a solution specifically designed for the wastewater treatment needs of oil and gas producers. The first deployments were carried out for companies operating in the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits in the US. In Pennsylvania alone, there are 50,000 wells where companies are trying to extract the natural gas locked up in the shale formations. Shale gas development is underpinned by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies that require huge volumes of water. Hence, water availability and wastewater disposal pose huge challenges. MoVap meets industry requirements for a solution that can recycle and reuse flowback and produced waters at the wells, and thus, minimise the amount of fresh water used in the well development process while reducing the volume of wastewater which must be disposed or treated off-site. Also, the water is treated to such a standard that it can be safely discharged into local water bodies, river or sea if not needed, without any environmental impact.
Lastly, could you highlight the broad trends in the water industry?
There are two major trends that I would like to highlight. The top trend is energy efficiency because we have to reduce carbon footprint and CO2 emissions; the other trend is reduction of water footprint through recycling and re-use so that less water is used. Our Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD) systems combine membrane and evaporative processes to achieve zero liquid discharge from the plants, and thus, reduce both water and carbon footprints. It is important that Aquatech is able to offer all kinds of water treatment technologies – chemical, membrane, thermal or biological. When you have all these technologies and combine them with your experience and expertise, you can offer best solutions to the market and to your clients.