My 5 Killer Water Technology Breakthroughs from Aquatech Amsterdam 2023

Fresh from the bustling halls of Aquatech Amsterdam 2023, the water sector’s epicenter for cutting-edge insights, here’s my personal selection of the water technologies you need to hear about. There’s a bit of disruption, a bit of translation, a tad of sturdiness, and a good piece of grit, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Shall we look into it?

It’s the end of a long and rich day at Aquatech in Amsterdam. But if you were not here, what exactly did you miss? Let’s find out.

What’s to Remember from Aquatech Amsterdam 2023?

What’s new and noteworthy – that’s the question on everyone’s lips in such a tradeshow. The enthusiasts will tell you that every single company was here with incredible new things – and it’s not true – while the jaded people will simply grumpily conclude there wasn’t anything interesting around – and that’s not true either.

I’m not pretending I am the sole holder of truth, but I’ve done my due diligence walking the floor: here are my top five of the coolest noteworthy stuff to take back from Amsterdam, whether you were around or not, starting with number five: the cool kids are growing.

#5 The Cool Kids are Growing at Aquatech!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not using this one to shamelessly promote my podcast. I just want to highlight how many of my former guests had booths everywhere around the floor. Aquacycl – that just announced its first European offices, Membrion – Greg was overwhelmed with super interested visitors, so I had to annoy him over his lunch break, Cembrane – still rocking the show in a similar fashion they did two years ago, BluAct Technologies – celebrating commercial milestones in Greece, Oxyle – beefing up their team in a significant fashion, Droople – showcasing some spectacular savings enabled for their customers, and many, many more I just genuinely met walking down one alley or another, or over a coffee.

As an overall trend, you had technology companies showcasing their progress on their booth and often on specific pavillions, and investors rather walking the floor and having a ton of dedicated conversations both formally and informally.

I had great chats with Kobe Nagar (we discussed supercritical water oxidation), Wayne Byrne, Paul O’Callaghan, Björn Otto, Nicola Lei Ravello or Walid Khoury – and almost equally great discussions with a bunch of people that have not been on the podcast yet (some might very soon, but no spoilers today).

Great conversations with incredible water people

So my summary of that number five would be: if you’re like me and don’t like tradeshows so much, this one is special. It’s only water people, so that even the most serendipitous encounters will be of high value – more to that later. And it’s great to see my cherry-picked podcast guests doing great, which offers me the smoothest of all transitions to number four: ZwitterCo has done it again!

#4 ZwitterCo has done it again!

If you’ve never heard of the super-powers of Zwitterions, you’ve probably missed my deep dive with Alex Rappaport. When we met again at the Global Water Summit in Berlin, Alex and his co-founder Chris Drover hinted at the next steps they envisioned beyond their Super-Filtration membrane banger. Well, the future is here, but I’ll let Peter Ingarra, their VP of Sales explain.

Peter Ingarra: Zwitterco has taken our zwitterionic copolymer chemistry, we’ve applied it to a standard industrial grade polyamide RO membrane. And we’ve unlocked the potential to solve all RO cleaning issues. Organic fouling, biofouling, the zwironic chemistry that we’ve demonstrated and proved in the superfiltration. Applying it to an RO membrane, we’ve seen the unprecedented performance of very long time between cleanings and a very simple 10 minute water flush fully restores the membrane to desired initial flux.

There’s a lot of systems that are struggling to maintain their desired performance and output. We leaned into it and we have a new developmental RO product. So we’ve lined up a series, two brackish waters we’ll be launching with a high rejection operates at standard pressure and a low energy product meant to be a full drop in replacement to existing RO membranes that are in the market today.

ZwitterCo introduced a revolutionary RO membrane at Aquatech Amsterdam 2023

Let me repeat ZwitterCo’s promise here so that we all get the magnitude of what we’re discussing here. The idea is to leverage the Zwitterionic material’s ability to prevent organic matter from binding strongly with it in order to wash it off with only water and no chemicals while basically experiencing an almost complete absence of fouling of any kind over extended working cycles.

I’ve managed to watch some graphs over Peter’s shoulder; I guess I’m not breaching any secret; they didn’t hide it from me, and the curves look impressive. Basically, there is no curve. The membrane simply maintains its performance, almost regardless of the organic load it’s receiving.

And if it starts behaving like a normal membrane and slightly drops off because of the crazy loads it’s been tested with, 10 minutes backwash, and you’re back to normal. Of course, that’s ZwitterCo’s data. It will need to be double-checked in the field, right?

ZwitterCo is launching an early access program

Peter Ingarra: We’re actually doing a lot of pay for performance models on this right now. And say, install this, we’ll show you the performance that you won’t clean. You’ve been cleaning monthly, give us six months.

I don’t think you’ll clean in six months. You’ve seen the value, we see the value, everybody wins. So what happens when you clean an RO membrane today? You get more salt passage over time, which then leads to the membrane replacement. We don’t obviously have enough data to say that the membrane is going to last X number of years, but if you’re not cleaning the membrane aggressively, and you’re only cleaning it with water flushes, theoretically the membrane should last significantly longer as well.

The Early Access program that we’re launching is open for people that want to see firsthand. Coming soon, that’s right. We go through and build out an economic model, so it’s sharing of data. How often are you cleaning? How often are you replacing membranes? We want to make sure that this opportunity makes sense for both companies.

Once we do that, we do a water quality analysis, typical RO stuff. We have the value case, then we get an install, get an order, we install it, we monitor the data, we deem success, we define KPIs, here’s the two to four KPIs. that this site needs to have this make financial sense. And once we get through that, then we say, six months, everybody’s happy.

Isn’t the advertised performance too good to be true?

Honestly? I know it sounds almost too good to be true. And I know I mentioned several times that silver bullets don’t exist in water treatment, but take this. It’s not a silver bullet. As of today, it’s not seawater desalination; it’s brackish water desalination. I have no doubt it will eventually grow into seawater, but for now, it’s not.

Then, still according to the graphs I saw, at first it didn’t fully meet the flux rates of today’s technology. ZwitterCo has been working on it, and today’s product, you can get with the early access does one to one meet the incumbent membranes. But again, it wasn’t a given and got worked on and developed. I’m just mentioning that to calm all our snake oil detectors, honestly that technology sounds very legit, and the promise to test it out for yourself is pretty appealing, given the potential it’s unveiling in an array of applications from desal to reuse.

It’s worth mentioning I don’t have any stakes in that game; I’m just genuinely impressed by the pace at which ZwitterCo is developing. Which makes me wonder: what’s next!

What’s next for ZwitterCo after their Big Bang at Aquatech Amsterdam 2023?

Peter Ingarra: We have two brackish water products today. We’re pursuing drinking water certification, haven’t received that yet. We’re also evaluating seawater as part of our expansion. SWITRCO, this is a platform technology.

We came to the market with one product, superfiltration, doing some really interesting things in wastewater reuse. But it doesn’t sound like a platform with one product. Now we’re demonstrating the platform. Here’s two products. Here’s three products, and then we’re proving that we can make products within the full membrane filtration spectrum.

Antoine Walter: So again, what’s next?

Peter Ingarra: Probably a seawater membrane, NF, people come talk to us. What do you want to see next?

If you have an opinion, reach out to Peter and the ZwitterCo team, or write to me, I’ll happily pass the message over!

For now, it’s time to move to my number 3 which is innovative in a fully different direction

#3 Finally an Autonomous Membrane Bioreactor?

Kristian Bromer: A BluElephant is a solution that works, we say, and in this case for the wastewater treatment plants. It’s special because it’s a small scale MBR, so it’s for 100 to 150 people a day, it can treat the water. It’s fully biological, with an ultrafiltration membrane in it.

So it’s a complete MBR system and also has a second treatment step for UV, uh, disinfection. It gives you a double barrier approach. It’s a one solution, but it gives you safe water to use for irrigation or other purposes

Antoine Walter: Okay. So it’s an MBR tailored for reuse. That’s pretty cool, but why would it be cool enough to be in my top five from AquaTech?

Well, first, maybe because of its look.

BlueElephant’s MBR actually looks like… a Blue Elephant!

Kristian Bromer: The Looks are partially because it’s a. Nice fun to see, but it also is functional because the internal parts are all centralized around this globe shape and this globe shape is also the tanker where the solution of sludge is in and it will give you for the circulation an optimal form to have no dead areas.

Antoine Walter:

So the look is cool, but this is still not water fashion channel, so it wouldn’t be enough to qualify. Actually, the special kick of this MBR/UV solution lies in its operation.

Take it with a pinch of salt because it’s not Jotem Water Solutions or BlueElephant’s words, it’s mine, but that thing, on top of being designed to be working off-grid, is stupidly easy to operate, which makes it pretty autonomous, right?

An autonomous MBR unveiled at Aquatech Amsterdam 2023

Kristian Bromer: Right, it is autonomous, but it needs an operator for someone who understands the system to operate It’s about one time a week and then you can check the system Maintain it and I think you need a few hours to keep the system alive and running

Antoine Walter: When I’m saying stupidly easy to operate, it’s because probably even someone like me would be able to run it. You don’t need to be super skilled beforehand.

Kristian Bromer: Not highly skilled, but you need some training for it. We can train the people to operate it in one day. It’s relatively simple, and it doesn’t need a lot of knowledge of the technique and internal parts. So you can use it, operate it, and maintain it very simply

Antoine Walter: So, tailored for water reuse, autonomous, easy to operate, designed for off-grid applications, and, by the looks of it, affordable, where will these BlueElephants be deployed?

What will be the BluElephant’s Playground?

Kristian Bromer: It is in fact one system, it’s one unit, but it’s modular. So you can place more elephants next to each other to get a greater scale. Villages, small communities that can use it as one system to treat their water. You can aim for small communities over there, small villages that can use it, and that have no water treatment systems.

It’s decentralized and you can use it. The water off the system directly for irrigation purposes.

Antoine Walter: And if I’m using the future, it’s because Blue Elephant is a joint venture of Rotem Water Solutions and Rob van Optop Designs and is actually in rolling out phase.

A carefully planned roll-out plan

Kristian Bromer: We have several working prototypes. We have a live operational and Several parts of the world and the Netherlands.

We have a system running that we keep very close contact with operational people so we can look at the results and measure the quality of the water that is producing. We also have three units in Palestina that’s treating water of the hospitals. and then make a safer irrigational water of it. The next five years will be used for further outgrow of the full concept.

But now it’s a functional prototype, but we’re very busy with making it ready for the serial production. In five years we will have the first serial production units operational overall around the World.

Antoine Walter: Again, to put a bit of emphasis on the ideal product-market fit, remember that 3.6 billion people in the World still lack access to sanitation, well it looks like that’s a bold opportunity for a win-win-win-win-win!

A good solution to help solve SDG 6?

Kristian Bromer: What we can do for those environments, it’s giving the people a real solution for the water they can’t use right now, but then we can… can make it for them usable and also safe. So it will bring higher standards to hygienic and environment and also safer water.

Antoine Walter:

In a nutshell, I believe BluElephant gives us a great example of “translational innovation” here. Something we maybe undervalue in the water sector. As the name suggests, translational innovation moves a technology or solution from its original context to a new one, thereby transforming its application and, often, its user base. MBRs are usually large or at least on-grid; here’s an off-grid small-scale take that leverages three techniques you can apply yourself starting today!

First, technology transposition, often not just a simple application but also a creative adaptation to fit the new setting. Second, scalability and adaptation, going back to the technology’s fundamentals to double down on its core functionality. And third, simplification: in that new context you can’t afford complexities so you have to increase accessibility and operability while reducing costs.

Not a flashy innovation, but in my book, a super interesting one!

#2 Serendipity at Work at Aquatech Amsterdam 2023

Which leads me to number 2: All the small, serendipitous, unflashy stories I collected from Aquatech – aka somewhat of my editorial take.

Actually, in that number 2, I could have focused on a specific story I collected on Lhoist’s booth. If you don’t know Lhoist, it’s a mineral and lime producer and a World leader at that.

Lime, let’s be honest, is a pretty boring topic. And I know one thing or two about being boring, working for a piping system company. What I mean by that, is that it’s a topic that is almost never top of mind.

Yet, lime has quite a carbon impact and hence could benefit from switching to greener production means, which by vertical integration would have a significant impact on many industrial players’ scope 3 emissions.

The unexpected cool story of Green Lime

Lhoist is in the process of doing just that – and it’s a huge endeavor, as they’re switching from grey to blue lime (lime with carbon compensation) and are in the process of moving to green lime (lime with carbon capture). They’re also working on circular lime, by the way.

I’m not going deeper into the details, because I want to make a specific deep dive into it. I actually see it as my duty to shine a bright light on the incredible work done on boring topics.

But what I want to point out here, is that I had 1 – no clue about lime’s carbon impact, 2 – barely an Idea on who Lhoist even is, 3 – not planned by any stretch of the imagination to stop on their booth and have that 45 minutes fascinating conversation.

Aquatech Amsterdam appeals to a specific water persona

So, what that shows is that, as a company exhibiting at a tradeshow like Aquatech, you know that the visitors will have a very defined persona. So it’s your chance to be super specific and to boldly push your agenda or topic that would be boring for 99% of the population but not for the 1% attending Aquatech.

To that extent, Aquatech is unique! A much larger IFAT or ACHEMA will have water people walking around but diluted in a mass of many other personas, and so your “hit rate” with a potentially boring story is going to be much lower.

Another way to benefit from that very specific visitor profile is to do what Nijhuis Saur Industries did on the front of their quite large booth: advertise your job openings. Our industry struggles to fill all its positions, yet the exact people who may want to join you are walking the floor. Leverage that, and bonus if – as Nijhuis did – it’s your CEO that’s standing next to the job screen.

This could not have happened anywhere else than at Aquatech Amsterdam 2023

When I was wondering if it was worth it for me to leave home once again this year and attend Aquatech, people told me I shall because it’s unique. Well, thanks for convincing me, because indeed it is! Where else do you see a CEO with a 33’000 following on LinkedIn DJ-ing at an evening party on another company’s booth, while sipping an Amsterdam-Canal water beer? Where else do you see the CEO of 1.3 billion dollar yearly revenue water company, Reinhard Huebner, explain in a Fuck Up Night how the first M&A move of SKion Water was a disaster that cost millions? Well, he did on my podcast as well. But he went into even more detail at Aquatech!

I’ve been bumping into great people at every corner and adding so many topics to my bucket list that it confirmed me I need to hire an editor for this channel – because, yes, I have a day job, a family, and I still need to sleep at night.

Water Marketing is Evolving

Something funny as well, was to see a shift in marketing beyond the super-targeted examples I mentioned with Lhoist and Nijhuis.

When I was working an Aquatech booth for Degrémont over 10 years ago, we had a wealth of goodies to give out. Take your pen, your tote bag, your Rubix cube, your USB stick, your glass and straw, your brochure, and so much more. Those times are gone and it’s a great thing! I’m coming home without a single physical good, besides some business cards.

On a marketing level as well, there’s an interesting cultural difference between Chinese companies and others. At a Chinese company’s booth, you’ll find a wealth of stuff to read. Posters, studies results, numbers, facts, and a few figures. Much less so on other booth – the extreme probably being the ZwitterCo one I mentioned earlier, where you had one membrane, one QR Code, 3 smiling people, and a laser-focused message: our new product is incredible; test it out.

One last marketing word before I wrap this number 2: there were very few cameras on the floor besides mine. I’ve seen a couple of teams with a similar set-up to mine, a big camera and a 360 smaller one, but that’s it. To that extent, Aquatech stays true to its motto: you have to be in Amsterdam to be in Amsterdam. No livestream, no replays.

But a bunch of interesting takes that get you thinking, like my number one for today: the company that wants to give your toilet paper one more life!

#1 Giving Toilet Paper One More Life

Frans Durieux: We reuse toilet paper. 20 to 30 percent of your load to waste for the facility. It’s toilet paper. Every Dutchman uses about one roll of toilet paper per week, which accounts to 15 million. Rolls of toilet paper that are being discharged to the sewage every week in the Netherlands.

That’s a lot of toilet paper. Currently, you use a lot of energy to take them out of the water and you produce a lot of sludge, which we burn, which is 80 percent water, so it doesn’t burn that well. So that’s very bad for the environment. Our solution is… Just take it out up front and then you can choose what to do with it.

We promote digestion, just make biogas out of it. Or you can reuse the fiber and make construction materials of it. Anything that’s made out of cellulose can be made by this cellulose as well. So I prefer the wet route, digestion, green gas. and put the green gas in a car, it can be stored. It’s much easier and much better for the environment

Cellulose can improve wastewater digestion’s potential

Antoine Walter: Ok, but you may wonder: if your wastewater treatment plant already has a sludge digestion step, what would it change to take out the cellulose to digest it?

Frans Durieux: In a sewage treatment plant, 70 80 percent of the cellulose is being digested already in the biology. So all the energy components is being taken out by the aeration and turned into surplus sludge, and that energy component, the cellulose, we take out the front and digest it and then it turns into a valuable energy source.

You get 10 15 percent extra capacity in your biology. Your loading goes down by 15, 20 percent as well, the organic loading, which means less nitrogen oxide, lower sludge loading, which means very good for your nitrogen removal. And you get more active biological per kilogram of sludge because you take out all the organic inert.

Antoine Walter: So that’s the principle, but how does it work in concrete terms?

How does the Cellulose Sorting technology work?

Frans Durieux: This technology is not new. A guy that’s standing on another booth developed it together with Waternet, one of the water boards in the Netherlands. And I thought it’s not the most optimal way. I think I could do better. We tested this technology in our back garden and we saw that it worked.

And then it developed. If you have a sieve, then your aim is to take particles out of water. And if the particles are solid and round, then it’s not so difficult to retain them with a sieve. Just make sure that the holes are a little bit smaller than the particles and everything is okay. The problem starts when you have fibers, much larger particles.

But if you want to separate the fibers with a sieve, then this is what happens. You will retain a couple of them, but most of them pass through the sieve. So what we did, we tilted. the sea from this one to this one. So only 15 degrees with the path of the fiber. And then, this is what happens. All the particles are on that side.

It will not be able to pass. In water treatment, the flow is not from the top to the bottom, but it’s from the left to the right. in a channel. And if you do it like this, then it’s easy for the fiber to pass. So what we did, we tilted our screen to 15 degrees with the floor. And now if the fiber goes from left to right, it will not be able to pass.

How to upscale today’s prototype?

Antoine Walter: Interesting, right? But to figure it out at the real scale, what would be the size of the holes in the sieve?

Frans Durieux: They all use 300 micron to separate the fibers out of the water. We use one and a half millimeter. So the dimension is five times bigger. All that’s a diameter. So actually the surface area is 25 times bigger.

So it’s much easier to clean. Water can pass easier. Cleaning is easier, which makes the system very affordable, about one third of the cost of the competition. And the operational costs are a joke.

Antoine Walter: And joke or not, that sieve traps 50 to 70 percent of the cellulose that enters a wastewater treatment plant.

Are there drawbacks (spoiler: not really)

But does it also trap unwanted stuff?

Frans Durieux: That depending what you say or unwanted stuff, unwanted is defined by what you do with the pulp at the back end. If you put it in a digester, then hairs don’t mind too much. You just put it in a shredder and everything goes into the digester. Even if you have a piece of plastic through the shredder.

and it digests very well. So for the digestion route which we prefer, it’s not a problem. If you go to the cellulose upcycle technology, then you want to have cleaner cellulose. Typically, we would use the same system, but then two in a row. The one we will put quite upwards, with big holes, and one flat with smaller holes.

This one will not remove any fibers, because they will pass. This one will remove all the fibers. This one will remove all the hairs. And all the big stuff, this one, you get a clean cellulose out.

Technology roadmap: toward more cellulose recovery

Antoine Walter: In case you’d be interested for your own plants, what’s the technology’s development stage?

Frans Durieux: We have a prototype, 6.5 meters by 2.5, and it’s 10 square meters of surface area. And it’s able to treat 700 to 1000 cubes an hour of sewage. This week, maybe next week, we will get the first intention declaration for the construction of a first. Full scale unit and then we go from TRL 7 to TRL 8 which is Demonstration. So we’re almost to TRL 9 Which is just by it and it’s business as usual and making a lot of money.

Antoine Walter: For it to make a lot money, you need to remember the name of the company, which is a funny story by itself. They’re called Purgatoria, but why Purgatoria?

The origins of Purgatoria

Frans Durieux: That sounds cool. Uh, charter Pia is Latin for toilet paper. The charter is the paper. The Pretoria is the stuff you want to get rid of, and we want to focus on the want to get rid of stuff.

Paper is recycled about 25 times already in the Netherlands, and we want to give it one more cycle. One more cycle. That’s the peria part of it. The stuff you want to get rid of, but not yet.

Aquatech Amsterdam 2023: my conclusion

And voilà, I think you get why that simple, sturdy, clever piece of technology got me to rank it my number one pick to bring back from Amsterdam, and I think by now you also feel I had a great time in the Netherlands, talking water with water people.

Did you also attend Aquatech, did you have different picks than mine, do you have a different opinion than me on my picks, come tell me in the comments, send me a message on LinkedIn and I’ll be thrilled to discuss that with you!

Remember if you’re fond of water technology, its application, its financing, its innovation, its impact on the World, well, I discuss all of the above on this channel every week, sometimes alone, sometimes with incredible guests; if you don’t want to miss out, hit the subscribe button, and if you’re already subscribed, thanks a lot, if you think this one would of interest for one of your friends, colleagues, your boss or your team, share it with them, and I’ll see you next time!