The ZLD system that turned its maker green

Published June 1st, 2017

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

I was in Jubail (Saudi Arabia) and Alexandria (Egypt) last week to present Global Water Awards to two companies which had not been able to pick them up in Madrid last month. Marafiq is the utility serving Saudi Arabia’s two main downstream petrochemical centres, Jubail and Yanbu, while Ethydco produces a range of polyethylenes in Alexandria’s petrochemical cluster. Was it more than a coincidence that both award-winning companies were in the petrochemical industry? It could be that as margins are squeezed across the whole oil and gas sector, the petrochemical industry is beginning to see the opportunities for margin improvement which water technology offers.

The presentation at Ethydco was quite a grand affair. The chairman of the company had invited all leaders of all the surrounding industrial facilities to attend, where they were subjected to six speeches in Arabic and English. One of these speeches left Devesh Sharma, managing director of Aquatech (which supplied the award-winning zero liquid discharge plant) looking quite green. In it Ethydco’s utilities manager explained how the project, which included High Efficiency Reverse Osmosis, Fractional Electrodeionisation, brine concentration, and crystallisation to recycle and polish the water used at the site, had a pay-back period of 18 months. Clearly Aquatech had sold the plant much too cheaply.

Hitherto my assumption was that zero liquid discharge technology is only used where there are no legal alternatives. Reducing wastewater to dry matter is an extremely expensive business, but here at Ethydco the numbers seemed to add up. The alternative – a conventional water and wastewater system – might have had lower capital costs, but without recycling, the volume of water that it would need to treat, heat and move would be much greater. This would have driven up the operating costs in terms of energy and chemicals. If other companies understood the value that they load into the water they use in their processes in this way, one could be sure that water technology would be in much greater demand.

Part of the reason why more businesses don’t look at water in this way is because it is not their business. That’s where a utility like Marafiq comes in. Their business is water, and they do a great job of it. They seem to be continually challenging themselves to find better ways of doing just about everything. They showed me around their operations control centre which is dramatically improving the efficiency of their distribution system (it is operated through a joint venture with Saur), after I presented their chairman with an award for the Sadara SWRO project it developed with Veolia as contractor.

The trouble is that there are not many industrial utilities like Marafiq around. I can think of Sembcorp Utilities (which serves Jurong Island in Singapore, the Duqm industrial zone in Oman and the Wilton industrial estate in England), Evides Industriewater (serving Rotterdam), Modon (which serves industrial parks across Saudi Arabia), Majis (at the port of Sohar in Oman), Infraserv and Currenta (two German chemicals park services companies). I think over time this market will evolve. The capital is there to take these things off the balance sheet. The financial justification is also there in terms of greater efficiency. What is lacking is awareness among industrial water users of the potential to do things better.