Securing our next drop

Singapore at the front line of water innovation

In its desire to boost water security, it has become a hub for tech tie-ups and exchanges

The so-called water industry is much more than about making money, because a clean and reliable water supply is vital not just to business but also mankind's survival.

For this reason, Singapore is at the front line of water innovation, becoming a hub for mutually beneficial technology collaborations and exchanges as it shores up its own water security.

"We're in that pivotal moment where we're building on data, robotics, smart manufacturing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage," Mr Subbu Kanakasabapathy, regional managing director for Asia Pacific at international environmental engineering company CH2M, tells Insight.

"The entire industry is changing. There is a beautiful fusion of physical, digital and biological knowledge."

Playing a key role in stimulating this exchange of ideas from multiple disciplines is the Singapore International Water Week, an annual convention started in 2008 where people and organisations from all over the world meet and share the latest ideas in water technology, management and education.

At present, there are 180 water companies in Singapore, and national water agency PUB has collaborated with more than 170 businesses, academic institutions or government agencies in just about every region of the world.

In terms of technology, Mr Kanakasabapathy says Singapore is moving towards a "water, energy and waste nexus" to increase water production while reducing energy consumption and waste generation.

For example, from the breakdown of waterborne biodegradable material in water reclamation plants (WRPs), the PUB has been able to generate biogas, which powers one-quarter of the energy needed by WRPs in Singapore. It is now considering the possibility of adding food waste to the mix to increase the amount of biogas produced.

"The technology may have originated elsewhere, but Singapore is a fantastic test bed. Singapore has always reached out to other countries for cool technologies, and then said 'How do I embrace it, how do I optimise it'," says Mr Kanakasabapathy.

The benefits of global exchange are evident. Dutch water technology company PWN Technologies (PWNT) is fitting Japan-made ceramic membranes at Choa Chu Kang Water Works, a first in Singapore for treating reservoir water.

These membranes are more durable than conventional polymer membranes and can be used and cleaned at higher pressure to produce more water over a longer lifetime, with fewer costly plant breakdowns.

Although they cost much more up front than conventional membranes, they will result in lower costs in the long run, said PWNT, which is also exploring the use of ceramic membranes in desalination.

For smaller companies too, Singapore is a gateway to the global water playground.

De.mem, a Singapore-based small and medium-sized enterprise specialising in industrial waste water treatment, already has overseas offices in Australia and Vietnam, and is exploring potential markets in China and Germany.

A 2014 spinoff from Nanyang Technological University, De.mem counts among its clients multinational corporations in industries from food and beverage to oil and gas, a testament to how essential water is to other industries.

The company is developing a nano-filtration membrane - which has pores 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair - that is cheaper to produce and can be used at much lower pressure than existing membranes of its kind. This saves energy and reduces system cost by up to 30 per cent. A pilot facility will be set up late next month.

De.mem chief executive Andreas Kroell says membrane technology, in general, has come a long way in achieving higher efficiency at lower cost, and sees it remaining the predominant technology in water treatment.

"Membrane technologies were developed over many decades," he says. "There haven't been overnight disruptions because technologies have to be tested and proven and that normally takes a while."

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament during the debate on the Budget this year: "Technologically, we have squeezed everything we can from the current water processing technology. It will take several more years to achieve the next breakthrough and bring it to a deployable scale."

An upcoming technology for desalination is electro-deionisation, which uses an electric field to "pull" salt from sea water. It consumes less energy than the current method of reverse osmosis, which relies on high pressure to push water molecules (not salt) through a membrane. PUB is testing the new technology in a small pilot plant in Tuas.

But while technology continues to improve the efficiency of water production, this does not mean the cost of water treatment will go down for the people treating it, says CH2M's senior vice-president and global director of water, Mr Peter Nicol.

There are many other factors in the equation that could make it more costly, such as the rising cost of power and the need to safeguard the system against increasingly temperamental weather, for instance.

PUB is already looking well ahead. For example, it is studying whether groundwater could be extracted for use on a regular basis, or during periods of drought. It is installing more monitoring wells and sensors to better understand Singapore's groundwater system.

The agency is also working with research institutions to look at novel, experimental ways of water production, such as using mangrove plants to convert sea water into freshwater.

But no matter the innovations to squeeze out every drop, water is a finite resource and Singapore's - and the world's - growing population would do well to use it judiciously.

Mr Jagadish CV, chief executive of semiconductor firm Systems on Silicon Manufacturing Company, says: "Technology and engineering will help recover more water, increase efficiency, even reduce usage... but to do that, the trigger is the mindset.

"It's the mindset of the common man, the mindset of the industry leaders, the mindset of the society - this is what's going to influence what we're going to do about it (water security)."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline Singapore at the front line of water innovation. Subscribe