Could you share with us your perspective of sustainable water treatment?
For me sustainability is about doing more with less, whether it is using less water or energy, seeking better performance or durability or usage of components. In fact, across all the units of Dow Advanced Materials, we are acting on that mantra. In the case of water, you have to appreciate that over the last decade, we have brought down costs of membranes by 50%. As a business unit, we have committed to bring that down by further 25% in terms of the whole life cycle of the system. While desalination is a well established technology, we have really never optimised the operational expenditure or energy consumption part of it. In the Middle East and especially in the Gulf, thermal desalination is huge because energy is cheap. However, if you position the price of oil at $100 a barrel, membrane technologies are much more cost effective. That’s the mindset we are in. At Dow, we believe that this region will move to membrane technologies. That’s one of the reasons why we announced in July last year plans to build our biggest Reverse Osmosis (RO) manufacturing plant outside the US in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
How are you building your innovations closer to your customers?
As I said earlier, our innovation pipeline is built around doing more with less. A key driver of innovation at Dow is lowering the cost of membranes. Even with subsidies, the cost of purified water is still artificial. We also think that it is important to innovate closer to the market because sea water is not the same all over the world. In the Arabian Gulf, for example, you need high temperature-resistant membranes; the contaminants might be different to those found in other seas. Also, the water quality has to meet different needs or specifications, whether it is drinking water or cooling towers. In fact, we will start testing our membranes in the Arabian Gulf very soon. Currently, we are testing them in the Red Sea with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Performance matters, but more important is performance specific to water quality and regional needs.
Between desalination and wastewater, which market do you think will grow faster?
Desalination is well established and will continue to grow in water scarce regions. But taking water from the sea, removing the salt, using it, recuperating the wastewater, treating it and sending it back to the sea, if you see through it, constitutes a real waste of money and energy. At Dow, we believe that wastewater will become the fastest growing market specifically in this region. Though still at infancy stage, it will grow faster and in double digits. Why is that? Again, it is an easy available resource and probably less energy intensive to purify compared to seawater desalination.
Dow Water & Process has been operating in the region for over 20 years now. What have you learned so far and how are you applying them in your business?
There is no doubt that the market is changing. If you look at it, Saudi Arabia was the first to adopt desalination. But they used the best technology at that time, which is thermal, but the future belongs to membranes or hybrids. People are now seeking more and more cost efficient solutions with low environmental footprint; they are asking for desalination powered by renewable energy; they want smaller, customisable systems that provide a quick Return on Investment (ROI) and they want science to provide the breakthroughs that will serve the region. The mindset of policy makers too are changing because this region is using more than four planets, which is clearly unsustainable. Initiatives like MASDAR in Abu Dhabi and the Green Building initiative in Dubai are the harbingers of change.
Our generation can make a choice, but the same may not be available for the next generation. That’s why I believe our structure for the region and our commitment to walking the talk – whether it is building a world-scale asset in Saudi Arabia or emphasis on local R&D activity with KAUST, and the biggest testimony for a science-led company is to bring R&D close to the customer – is the way forward. There is no way around that.
Do you have new announcements that we can look forward to this year?
This year, we will be launching new sea water/brackish water technologies with even lower energy consumption, better flux and better anti-fouling properties. Recently, we launched the DOW IntegraPac skid product line, a series of next generation ultrafiltration (UF) skids. In fact, we announced their launch during the Saudi Water & Power Forum (SWPF) 2011 in Jeddah. These skids are pre-engineered to reduce material costs, enable efficient transport and faster assembly with lower footprint compared to traditional designs.