New membrane tech centre to boost S'pore's water security

Thin-film hollow fibre membranes at the Singapore Membrane Technology Centre. The new Start centre will have the same capabilities to produce these membranes on a larger scale.
Thin-film hollow fibre membranes at the Singapore Membrane Technology Centre. The new Start centre will have the same capabilities to produce these membranes on a larger scale.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

A national centre has been set up to hasten the commercialisation of membrane technology for applications such as desalination and wastewater treatment.

This comes as increasingly uncertain global weather patterns and regional fluctuations in water supply underscore the urgency of boosting Singapore's water security.

The $30 million facility, the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific, will achieve this aim as well as enhance Singapore's reputation as a global water hub, having turned a resource scarcity into an economic advantage.

The Separation Technologies Applied Research and Translation (Start) Centre was launched yesterday at CleanTech Park, an eco-business park near Nanyang Technological University (NTU), by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli.

Companies working in collaboration with Start will have access to comprehensive facilities for fabricating membranes, assembling them into complete systems and analysing their performance.

Staff will include industry experts from companies such as GE and Hyflux, and negotiations are in progress with some 15 water companies to work on joint projects.

Start is supported by NTU, the Economic Development Board, national water agency PUB and the National Research Foundation. NTU's innovation arm, NTUitive, will lead the university's efforts in partnership with industry.

Start managing director Adil Dhalla highlighted the importance of developing new technologies to optimise cost and efficiency, "to be able to recover every last drop of water", especially with Johor's agreement to supply part of Singapore's water set to expire in 2061.

Dr Dhalla, who is also deputy director of NTU's Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute, expressed hope that Start's innovations will not only benefit larger companies but also stimulate Singapore's start-up eco-system as local start-ups take some of those innovations forward.

There are about 180 local and foreign water companies based in Singapore, while the global water market this year has been estimated by Global Water Intelligence to be worth US$862 billion (S$1.2 trillion).

PUB chief engineering and technology officer Harry Seah said: "Membrane technology has played a vital role in the development and augmentation of Singapore's water resources." He added that the agency remains keenly interested in technological advancements.

Dr Dhalla said the "holy grail" would be to extract all the water from the raw source, leaving behind only impurities.

"We work towards that by having higher and higher efficiencies in each of our national taps, whether it's Newater, whether it's desalination, or whether it's how we treat our reservoir water."

The four so-called national taps are local catchment water, imported water, highly purified reclaimed water known as Newater, and desalinated water.

Mr Masagos noted that Start will reduce companies' investment risks by co-sharing manpower and equipment costs.

Besides water treatment, Start will diversify over time into applications such as environmental and air filtration. He said: "We have transformed Singapore's challenge of water scarcity into an opportunity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'New membrane tech centre to boost S'pore's water security'. Print Edition | Subscribe