No water, no beer: Industrial water problems can’t be ignored

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The interrelated challenges of water scarcity and water pollution have become urgent problems for businesses across a broad range of sectors. From beer to semiconductors to cement to chemicals, the availability and contamination of water are social and sustainability challenges that manufacturers cannot ignore.

Yet, these global issues are actually local and regional, and companies must abide by regulations on chemicals of concern and zero-liquid-discharge mandates, which vary widely in different locations. A beverage company like PepsiCo with hundreds of plants around the world faces different challenges and KPIs (for water conservation or recycling) at each plant.

As a corollary to environmental and regulatory issues, rising water costs are pushing companies to find new solutions that achieve more with less and help realize onsite reuse. The upside of all these challenges is that investments in water management solutions often result in long-term cost savings and demonstrate a company’s commitment to sustainability.

Lux Research mapped the landscape of innovation in industrial wastewater management into six technology categories. The biggest category is novel membranes, with about one-third of all technology developers, including many corporate players. Startup activity is driving the category of advanced oxidation processes; startups like H2nanO are finding success with low-energy solutions. The need to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and opportunities in direct lithium extraction create momentum in the adsorption category. Incumbent corporations are prominent in adsorption and electrochemical separations, where they are enhancing the performance of well-known systems like electrodialysis. Biological solutions represent 16% of all developer activity; companies in this segment have demonstrated success in removing contaminants with membrane bioreactors, microbial fuel cells, and simpler aerobic approaches.

Lux’s analysis of patent trends and investment trends in industrial wastewater management revealed that a wave of R&D activity that crested in 2018 has given way to a phase of commercialization. Investment grew from a small base over 2019–2021, then jumped to over USD 500 million in deals in both 2022 and 2023. The high, consistent level of patent applications over the 2016–2021 period bodes well for future commercial impact in the categories of adsorption, electrochemical separations, and biological treatment.

Eventually, industrial companies will need to rethink how they view water at a systems level in the context of their sustainability initiatives. There is no silver bullet technology to optimize water use. Finding an integrated solution, rather than seeking the best one-size-fits-all technology, will be key to achieving water savings and lowering the risks from water scarcity.

For more data and analysis on this topic, please tune in to the webinar “Industrial Water Challenges: New Technologies to Watch” on April 4. My colleague Abhirabh Basu, senior analyst, will share insights on how technology innovators are addressing the toughest water challenges in a range of sectors.

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