For the unfamiliar, the term “disruptive technology” initially sounds quite bad, as though it describes something that gets in the way. Far from impeding progress, however, disruptive technologies actually accelerate progress exponentially by disrupting the status quo. These technologies typically bubble under the surface for a while, but when they finally hit, they hit hard. Old technologies are displaced, causing a major shift in the market. Think personal computers vs. mainframes, or cell phones vs. land lines.
Of course, we in the water/wastewater business are always thinking about water, so which technologies have the potential to disrupt our industry, and in what ways? And how, exactly, do you spot a disruptive technology? An expert in water innovation shared with me three technologies that are most likely to disrupt the market, along with the reasons why.
According to Tyler Algeo, director of research at BlueTech Research — a firm that tracks and analyzes innovations in the water industry using its “Disrupt-o-meter” rating system — there is a science to predicting disruptive technologies. It starts with two basic criteria: the technology must be (1) unique and (2) significantly more efficient than existing systems.
With regard to efficiency — of particular concern to today’s municipalities — the benchmark for a highly disruptive technology is a 50 percent improvement over incumbent technologies. That’s a significant increase, to be sure, but it accounts for the fact that it may take 10 years or more for a new technology to go from lab to market adoption. Meanwhile, conventional technologies tend to improve their efficiency by up to 3 percent year over year; therefore the new technology must start out with a sizable advantage to be truly disruptive when it finally hits the market.
Although Algeo cited 10 years as a typical timeframe for a technology to be commercialized, he also noted that some products will take much longer to realize their potential. UV disinfection dates back to 1910, for example, but only took significant market share from chemical disinfection following the discovery of chlorination byproducts in the ’70s and a cryptosporidium outbreak in the ’90s. Membrane bioreactors (MBR) were pioneered in the early ’70s, but never really took off until the 2000s. Algeo thinks a similar scenario is taking place right now with ceramic membranes, which have been around since the 1980s.
Ceramic Membranes — According to BlueTech Research, “Studies have shown that ceramics achieve better performance than polymeric membranes in terms of flux stability and treated water quality.” Furthermore, Algeo states that “ceramic membranes have particular advantages in harsh industrial environments such as oil and gas. Ceramics can handle aggressive chemicals and temperatures that would degrade polymeric membranes.” Because they are robust, ceramic membranes can also be cleaned with aggressive chemicals (that, again, would degrade their polymeric counterparts), potentially reducing maintenance costs.
As the price point has continued to come down, and with industrial wastewater and reuse an escalating concern, the stage is set for ceramic membranes to make their mark — to be disruptive — in the coming years. BlueTech reports that, “Based on current whole-of-life costs compared to polymerics, in addition to likely decreases in cost as market volumes increase, ceramics could cause a radical shift in the membrane market in the next decade.”
UV-LED — Algeo was equally excited by the prospects UV-LED, which at the moment is in early-stage commercial development. As mentioned previously, UV has been around for a long time, but not quite like this. Current UV systems for water/wastewater disinfection utilize bulbs — typically fluorescent tubes — that contain mercury and are susceptible to breakage. UV-LED satisfies the “unique” criterion of disruptive technology in that it generates UV in a totally new, less energy-intensive way. LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are not powered by a filament, but rather by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material. They are smaller and more robust than UV bulbs, and can therefore be configured and used in a much wider variety of applications. For instance, UV-LED can potentially be used on ships to disinfect ballast water (an emerging market due to new regulations).
Another drawback for traditional UV is the inability to turn the system on and off without diminishing the life of the bulbs, which require a warm-up period before achieving full UV radiation. UV-LED, on the other hand, suffers from neither issue: it can be turned off to save energy, and turned back on for instant operation. Like ceramic membranes, the tipping point for UV-LED is cost of production. “It could be 5 or 15 years,” said Algeo, “but at a certain point it’s expected that UV-LEDs will be cheaper to produce than traditional bulbs, which will be very disruptive for the market.”
Capacitive Deionization — Way back in 1962, John F. Kennedy stated, “If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.” The race has been on ever since, and it only intensifies as water demands continue to rise.
Capacitive deionization (CDI) could be the answer to JFK’s vision. CDI works by taking the 99 percent of the water out of the one percent salt, rather than various conventional methods that do the opposite by removing the one percent of salt from water. The electrically-driven process draws dissolved ions (salt) out of the water with oppositely charged electrodes and membranes that selectively filter out cations and anions (positively and negatively charged ions). Electrode polarization can then be reversed to regenerate electrodes and flush the system. According to Voltea, a CDI company tracked by BlueTech, the process typically recovers between 80 and 90 percent of the water it treats, compared to 50 to 70 percent for reverse osmosis. CDI also saves electricity by reusing the energy that is stored in the electrodes.
Prepare For The Future
There are other water technologies that may ultimately have greater market impact than the three mentioned here — disruptive technologies can sometimes “come out of nowhere” — but these highlighted few appear particularly ready to bubble over. The value in monitoring the development of these new technologies is to be better informed and prepared for what the future holds. The savvy water professional will harness the power of innovation, rather than being blindsided by it.