Water: It’s a human need and source of contention as old as civilisation itself.

Look no further than the ancient settlement of Mesopotamia, thought to be one of the earliest examples of civilisation. It is said that Mesopotamia – a region in the Middle East and Western Asia that would today comprise Iraq and parts of Iran, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey – is the site of the earliest developments of the Neolithic Revolution, from around 10,000 BC.

It has been widely identified as having inspired some of the most important developments in human history – from the invention of the wheel through to the first cereal crops and agriculture. It did so largely due to its location within the Tigris-Euphrates river system, which form the northeastern part of the Fertile Crescent, which also included the Jordan River valley and that of the Nile.

Water was a nexus or focal point. It was and remains fundamental to humanity and it was in that early civilisation of Mesopotamia that the first innovations with our usage, handling, control and distribution of water were developed. The control of water by dams and aqueducts are widely credited as Mesopotamian innovations, while early agriculture could not have been pioneered without appropriate irrigation systems.

In fact, it is recorded that the geography of southern Mesopotamia is such that agriculture is possible only with irrigation and with good drainage, a fact which had a profound effect on the evolution of early Mesopotamian civilizsation. The need for irrigation led the Sumerians, and later the Akkadians, to build their cities along the Tigris and Euphrates and the branches of these rivers1.

And water is more important today than ever before. Yet, it’s also in dire shortage in certain parts of the world and there are serious warnings about water availability and desertification, if you’re prepared to seek them out and be shocked.

That’s what makes Chart Industries’ recent forays into the water treatment business so interesting for our industry, and why today’s theme of COP26 in Glasgow – Nature: Ensuring the importance of nature and sustainable land use are part of global action on climate change and a clean, green recovery – is so very significant.

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Water wars

The subject of ‘water wars’ can make for interesting reading. Water conflict is indeed a thing, it exists – it’s a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or groups over the rights to access water resources.

In fact, a wide range of water conflicts are understood to have appeared throughout history, though these can rarely be attributed to simply water ownership or access alone. These are often territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantage. 

Furthermore, such conflicts or wars do not discriminate over the type of water – it’s thought that these are disputed over both fresh water and salt water alike, though it is largely the former that is at the heart of most division. Fresh water is seen as a vital, yet unevenly distributed natural resource, due to the very nature of the planet’s make-up and our accepted territories or borders; and the balance of that distribution is so delicate that it can significantly impact the living and economic conditions of a given country or region.

Take the Middle East, for example, so rich in its other resources that it had long been the envy of the developed world. Yet, a lack of cost-effective water supply solutions can and has put severe pressures on all water users – from industry to society to individual.

As civilisation continues to grow and proliferate, that ‘water stress’ only continues to escalate too. Competition for water has widely increased through the decades and the battle for this crucial resource can, over time, further challenge the stability – or instability – of some regions and regimes. In fact, some sources suggest that recent humanitarian catastrophes, such as the Rwandan Genocide or the war in Sudanese Darfur can be linked back to conflict over water.

Reason and the very notion of civilisation in 2021 dictate that water resources spanning international boundaries are more likely to be a source of collaboration and cooperation in the years ahead, yet there are also inescapable arguments for the water resource being the catalyst for future wars. It’s yet another geopolitical balancing act to be considered, and potentially an exciting challenge for the gases industry to take on.

And as we close the book on 2021 and move into 2022 with the commitments of COP26 in our sails, water stress is not just an age-old problem but a challenge resurfacing…

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Warnings

“Unless urgent action is taken, more than four million people across Lebanon – predominantly vulnerable children and families – face the prospect of critical water shortages or being completely cut off from safe water supply in the coming days.”

That was the stark warning issued by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, on 21st August2.

Lebanon, it emphasised, has been in danger of losing critical access to water, against a backdrop of power networks under strain, poor sanitation and an ongoing response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Last month, UNICEF warned that more than 71% of the population of Lebanon could run out of water this summer. Since then, this perilous situation has continued, with critical services including water and sanitation, power networks and healthcare under huge strain. Vital facilities such as hospitals and health centres have been without access to safe water due to electricity shortages, putting lives at risk,” Fore’s statement continued.

“If four million people are forced to resort to unsafe and costly sources of water, public health and hygiene will be compromised, and Lebanon could see an increase in waterborne diseases, in addition to the surge in Covid-19 cases.”

The plight in Lebanon is not the only shot across the bows we’ve seen in recent weeks and months.

An article published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on 2nd September3 described how desertification has been devasting for the Azawak region of West Africa – which has suffered from water scarcity due to the impact of climate change.

Once one of Africa’s most lush pastoral lands, the Azawak has badly suffered from desertification and water scarcity, the article explains. In this region – a Florida-sized desert valley spanning the Mali and Niger border – wetlands, forests and pastures play a significant role in preserving biodiversity and mitigating the effect of climate change and yet, the ultimate effects of that climate change are taking their toll on this ecosystem.

Just decades ago, the WEF explains, the Azawak had a five-month rainy season which saw abundant pastures, permanent groundwater and large acacia forests, in which wildlife flourished. Today, however, that rain season spans but a month, with pasturelands and forests all but disappeared and groundwater quick to evaporate. This desertification has hit the region with devastating impact.

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Source: Amors photos / Shutterstock.com

In a further article originally published by the World Bank and reproduced by the WEF on 4th September, an alarming statistic was conveyed – some 4.2 billion people around the world lack access to safely managed sanitation services. The need for wastewater treatment is abundantly clear, it argued, and as much as 80% of global wastewater is not adequately treated. Further figures compound this sense of crisis in water stress: as much as 36% of the global population lives in water-scarce areas; and water demand is expected to rise to 55% by 2050, amid rapid urbanisation4.

An earlier article from the WEF, dated 20th August (2021), urged the need to re-think our environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. It argued that the focus ESG frameworks place on climate change runs the risk that we fail to solve the problem of ensuring access to water and sanitation5.

Further still, it levels that the existing ESG reporting frameworks under-represent water as a critical risk and opportunity – at a time when water is increasingly being recognised as a material risk to businesses.

There is clearly an industrial, economic and most critically a humanitarian need to be addressed when it comes to water, not to mention the concerns over the potential for ‘water wars’ and geopolitical conflict. The gauntlet is firmly laid down then, in terms of wastewater treatment, and the sheer importance of the water nexus.

Water and the gases industry

The importance of water and wastewater treatment is of course nothing new for the gases industry.

Whether it’s for showering, drinking, food preparation, swimming, irrigation or even emergency services, we need water for so many applications. And just as we are thirsty for water for so many different walks of life, the business of water processing and supply is thirsty for air gases like oxygen.

Varying requirements have to be met in terms of water treatment, with gases helping to produce clean drinking water, supply optimal process water and thoroughly clean even heavily contaminated wastewater. In fact, gases have been used in large-scale water treatment for over a century. One of the earliest examples of this application is the disinfection of drinking water with chlorine gas, whereas modern treatment processes understandably now largely avoid the use of toxic or corrosive chemicals.

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Increasing use is being made of two gases that are also part of the natural water cycle: oxygen and carbon dioxide. Oxygen is either used for oxidation processes or it serves as an elixir of life for beneficial microorganisms and aquatic animals in biological processes. Carbon dioxide – technically an air gas but not typically put in the same bracket as oxygen, nitrogen and argon – performs such diverse tasks as adjusting the pH value of water, hardening drinking water that is too soft, or precipitating soluble components from process water and wastewater. It is also used in the cleaning of membranes and for desalination.

In principle, it is also possible to use air for oxidation processes and to supply oxygen to beneficial microorganisms. But with its high nitrogen content, the effect of ordinary air is limited in many applications. Pure oxygen, on the other hand, accelerates the processes and boosts their efficiency.

In wastewater treatment, CO2 facilitates particularly environmentally friendly neutralisation of highly alkaline wastewater. Even in swimming pools, the water’s pH value increases wherever there is a swirling mix of water and air, for instance in showers and whirlpools or on water stairs. Adding CO2 compensates for these constant shifts. The gas is kind to the skin, odourless and completely safe in every respect for use in swimming pools.

Gases may have been used in water treatment circles for over a century, but we are clearly approaching an inflection point in our water supply and demand, globally, particularly if concerns over the impact of decarbonisation and clean energies prove to be well-founded. That’s why it was so interesting to see Chart Industries make moves in water treatment circles recently; one quote from President and CEO Jill Evanko stood out in particular.

“You can’t ignore the energy-water nexus if a core element of your growth platform is enabling society’s transition to a low-carbon economy,” she said6.

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The great energy-water nexus

Let’s unpack some of those sustainability concerns.

Not only is there a sense of concern or fear that the drive for clean energy vectors and decarbonisation technologies will – or may already – take precedence in our ESG thinking at the detriment of other key issues like water shortages, but anxiety exists where the sheer need for water in these technologies is concerned.

I have regularly taken questions during webinars for gasworld and H2 View this year, from audiences unclear on the impact of green hydrogen on the water table, for example.

Green hydrogen is widely held aloft as arguably the closes thing to a ‘silver bullet’ that we have in this clean energies transition. The core resources or feedstocks for its production are electricity (via renewables like solar or wind power) and water. Green hydrogen is the product of electrolysis: splitting water with electricity, in a nutshell.

Against that very basic backdrop of science, I’ve moderated regular questions over the feasibility of such vast water demands to enable the electrolyser plant capacities required to realise that green hydrogen future. Each time, expert speakers have explained that the process is essentially closed loop – the water required is consistently re-treated and re-used. While that green hydrogen may be generated from water, when it is used as a fuel (for vehicles for example) the only product or emission of that process is – water.

Nonetheless, those questions keep coming. Questions have also been raised with regards to the impact of carbon capture and storage (CCS) operations on those precious water resources.

CCS, as well as CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation and storage) is seen as one of the keys to achieving decarbonisation in the decades ahead. But research by Berkeley University of California, published in May 2020, suggested that CCS could stress water resources in about 43% of the world’s power plants where water scarcity is already a problem.

As reported by gasworld, according to the research, the technology deployed in these water-scarce regions matters, and emerging CCS technologies could greatly mitigate the demand CCS places on water consumption.

Energy-producing facilities such as coal-fired power plants consume large amounts of cooling water. The type of cooling method used in a power plant affects water consumption. Installing CCS at these facilities requires the production of additional energy to compensate for the energy used by the CCS process, and with that comes additional cool water consumption7.

Most CCS projects currently operations worldwide use adsorption technologies. Common absorbents are aqueous bases containing amine groups that bind CO2, separating it from other gases in the flue mixture. The process of adsorption of CO2 into these solvents and subsequent regenerations of the solvents require energy withdrawal from the power plant. The circulation of large quantities of solvents results in water loss by evaporation.

The answer? Well, other state-of-the-art CCS technologies use far less water as they separate the CO2 from flue gas by adsorption onto solid materials or pass the exhaust gas through membranes.

These technologies potentially reduce both the energy load and water consumption.

Of course, the answer to these water concerns is a many-splintered thing. It goes beyond one application (CCS) or clean energy saviour (green hydrogen), beyond one type of water or one region. There’s a balancing act between nature and civilisation at play.

And there’s an intricate relationship between energy-intensive industries and processes, and the need for freshwater; likewise, the need for fresh water and water treatment ultimately requires great energy, both literally and metaphorically. Hence, the energy-water nexus.

And so, we come back to those market moves by Chart Industries, and that sentiment from President and CEO, Jill Evanko.

Under Evanko’s strategic thinking and leadership, Chart has rebalanced and repositioned itself in the last few years and now finds itself perfectly poised to both take advantage of the clean energy transition and deliver against it. The company is a key stakeholder today in enabling the transition, with its products and innovations core to realising long-term ambitions in hydrogen and near-term needs in liquefied natural gas (LNG), among other avenues.

In August (2021), it strengthened that hand even further – first with the formation of ChartWater™ to bring innovative water treatment solutions to market, and just weeks later with the acquisition of AdEdge Holdings, a water treatment technology and solutions provider. One couldn’t fail to notice the emphasis on water treatment.

Part of the company’s Speciality Products segment, ChartWater™ solidifies Chart’s position in the growing water treatment space and establishes a framework for organic and inorganic expansion. The division was born out of Chart and BlueInGreen’s water treatment commitments. Acquired by Chart in November 2020, BlueInGreen continues to be based out of Fayetteville, Arkansas, and was named one of the fastest-growing private companies in America by Inc. Magazine in August last year.

On the formation of ChartWater™, Evanko said, “We recognise the importance and magnitude of the challenges at the nexus of society’s clean energy and clean water needs globally.”

“Energy production consumes a tremendous amount of fresh water, and the production of clean water consumes a tremendous amount of energy. You can’t ignore the energy-water nexus if a core element of your growth platform is enabling society’s transition to a low-carbon economy.”

“We see a tremendous opportunity to not only continue to grow existing markets for these water treatment solutions, but to also leverage our work in other areas – like LNG, hydrogen, biogas, and carbon capture – to provide an even more integrated solution for our customers.”

Weeks later, and the company would take that one step further with the acquisition of AdEdge for $40m. AdEdge specialises in the design, development, fabrication and supply of water treatment solutions, specialty medias, legacy and technologies that remove a wide range of contaminants from water.

Evanko added, “AdEdge is a perfect fit for ChartWater™. Its technologies, solutions, and expertise strengthen Chart’s position in the growing water treatment space as we continue to invest in sustainable solutions for a wide variety of industries and applications.”

A circular approach to a fluid topic

It’s clear that we have a very fluid challenge on our hands when it comes to one of the most valuable resources we have as a civilisation. On the one hand, there are regions where there scarcely seems to be enough water; on the other, there are imperative applications that require it in ever-growing quantities.

At the heart of so many different tributaries of this challenge, lies the potential for wastewater recycling and reuse. Remember those statistics from the aforementioned article published by the World Bank and reproduced by the WEF:

  • Up to 36% of the global population lives in water-scarce areas
  • Water demand is expected to rise to 55% by 2050
  • 80% of global wastewater is not adequately treated.

The same article noted that a circular economy approach of reusing treated wastewater could have benefits for billions of people. In India, Singapore, Mexico and Spain, reused water could provide a valuable source for key industries, reducing the demand on limited water resources. Power plants, refineries, mills and factories could all benefit.

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Could scenes like this, a coupling of industry, energy and water treatment facilities, provide an answer to many of the world’s looming water challenges?

What potential could await in a region like Sub-Saharan Africa? The United Nations (UN) estimates that 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity by 2050 – with Sub-Saharan Africa counting the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region. There are already examples of this approach in-progress. In Durban, South Africa, an amount of wastewater equivalent to 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools has been treated and reused for industrial use by a paper mill and a local refinery every day since 20018.

At a time when the focus is so intently on climate change and decarbonisation, with the world watching COP26 developments in Glasgow, Scotland this November, these solutions in wastewater treatment coupled with effluent reuse could also have important, direct climate benefits. Not only can this contribute to helping cities adapt to climate change with a sustainable source of fresh water, in many case the treatment of sewage water helps to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions too, particularly the oft-mentioned methane emissions.

What more reason do we need to invest in scaling up water treatment and reuse? There’s a humanitarian need, there’s environmental motivation, there’s a challenge to be met and there’s a hard business case – just ask Chart Industries.