Issue Date: July 22, 2013
Industry’s Water Stewards
College students frequently want to save the world. When the part they are interested in saving is water and they are studying at the University of Texas, Austin, they often approach chemical engineer Danny D. Reible for career advice. Most assume they can make the biggest difference in a developing country, working to remedy the shortage of clean drinking water, says Reible, a professor of environmental health and director of UT Austin’s Center for Research in Water Resources.
However, Reible is quick to recommend another path. “I tell students that they are better off focusing their careers on the treatment and reuse of industrial wastewater, in both developing and developed nations.” This route offers them the best career opportunities and is “equally important to solving the potable water problem,” says Reible, who cochairs the International Society for Water Solutions, an American Institute of Chemical Engineers group founded in 2012 to focus on industrial water management.
Water supplies worldwide are tightening because of increasing demand from industry, municipalities, and agriculture. Global population is on the rise, rainfall is becoming less predictable, and water-intensive industrial processes such as hydraulic fracturing are expanding (see page 10).
As aquifers are depleted and global freshwater supplies continue to shrink, industry is feeling pressure to use more sophisticated and efficient technologies to recycle and reuse water so that more high-quality water can be diverted to uses such as drinking, says Snehal Desai, global business director for Dow Water & Process Solutions, a unit of Dow Chemical in Edina, Minn.
Consequently, the role of chemists and chemical engineers in the water treatment field is becoming more critical. Their expertise is needed to develop technologies and design multistep processes required to treat industry’s chemically complex wastewater streams, sources say.
“The problems we face are not getting any less severe,” Desai says. “We need fresh blood—people who can spark innovative thinking to help industry get more creative and more sophisticated in the way it accesses, treats, and reuses industrial water.”
As a result, companies that design, develop, and market chemicals and equipment for industrial water treatment and reuse—firms such as Dow Water & Process Solutions and GE Power & Water—say they are bringing more chemists and chemical engineers into their ranks. That’s good news for appropriately trained scientists who are seeking jobs in an otherwise anemic job market. Such people “bring experience with handling physical separations, knowledge of a variety of complicated chemistries, and experience tailoring those chemistries to solve specific problems—all of which are important to treating industrial wastewater streams,” Reible says.
“As I talk with and counsel students looking for their first professional jobs, I see many more smiles these days,” says John H. Koon, a consultant and an environmental engineering professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Employers involved in industrial water treatment and reuse are looking for more of these students compared to five years ago,” adds Koon, who is a fellow of the Water Environment Federation, a global technical and educational organization of wastewater professionals, and a member of its Industrial Wastes Committee.
Companies that develop and market chemicals and equipment for industrial water treatment are bringing in the expertise they need to capture a bigger share of a lucrative and growing business. The global market for process water and wastewater treatment equipment, including that used for recycling, totaled $15.8 billion in 2012, up from $14.7 billion a year earlier. This market is expected to grow about 7% annually from 2011 to 2018 to reach $23.9 billion, according to Global Water Intelligence, an Oxford, England-based consulting firm. On top of that, GWI estimates that the market for industrial water and wastewater treatment chemicals totaled $10.9 billion in 2012.
Spurred in part by this growth, Dow Water & Process Solutions continues to hire chemists and chemical engineers as well as other scientists into its ranks. Recently, hiring has been concentrated in North America and China, “where we see growing demand for our core technologies around reverse osmosis and ultrafiltration,” Desai says. He expects the company will keep hiring in part to support what he calls “a pretty robust growth business” around industrial wastewater treatment technologies.
Chemists and chemical engineers are also in demand at GE Power & Water, which continues to expand its involvement in industrial wastewater treatment and reuse technologies and systems, according to Ralph E. Exton, chief marketing officer for the firm’s Water & Process Technologies division and cochair of the International Society for Water Solutions with Reible. The company has built up its business so it can provide a slate of water reuse technologies, which encompass microfilters, ultrafilters, reverse-osmosis and electroseparation equipment, evaporators, and crystallizers. In addition, the firm has been investing in its business globally, opening a new laboratory in Cotia, Brazil; tripling capacity at its Oroszlány, Hungary, site; and doubling capacity for water technology manufacturing in Wuxi, China.
Within GE’s Water & Process Technologies division, which is headquartered in Trevose, Pa., chemists help develop materials used to treat, recover, and reuse water, says Tom Stanley, the division’s chief technology officer. For example, they help develop membranes used in reverse-osmosis and ultrafiltration systems. They also develop new chemistries that are critical to the performance of water treatment systems: products such as membrane cleaning agents or flocculating and coagulating agents, which aid in the settling of solids in wastewater treatment plants, he adds. Chemists also develop products that retard corrosion or control growth of microorganisms.
Also in that division, a chemical engineer might design a system for a food and beverage company that is capturing water from a river to use as a food or beverage ingredient. The system might use an ultrafiltration unit to remove suspended solids and then a reverse-osmosis unit to remove dissolved salts. “At GE, our development efforts are focused on technologies that lower costs and energy consumption and are capable of treating ever more challenging waters,” Stanley says.
Another company that is bringing in new hires is BASF Water Solutions, a division of BASF. It is expanding its market position in the industrial and wastewater reuse market, according to Linda Muroski, director of BASF Water Solutions North America in Florham Park, N.J. In 2009, BASF acquired Ciba, a Swiss specialty chemical maker whose products included flocculants and coagulants. And in 2011, the company acquired Inge Watertechnologies, a German manufacturer of ultrafiltration membranes. Through these acquisitions, BASF has built a business that includes a slate of water treatment chemicals, including antiscalants, surfactants, and biocides, as well as membrane equipment.
BASF Water Solutions is currently hiring chemists and chemical engineers as well as other scientists to staff its Innovation Center lab, which opened earlier this month in Houston. At the center, chemists and chemical engineers will provide technical services related to the firm’s water treatment chemicals, Muroski says.
As chemists and chemical engineers join companies that provide wastewater treatment technologies, many will focus on supporting petroleum industry efforts surrounding hydraulic fracturing. The process, also known as fracking, involves injecting large amounts of water and chemicals into shale formations to fracture rock and unlock oil and gas reserves. About one-third of the water returns to the surface as flowback water in the first weeks. Additional liquid, known as produced water—a mix of fracking fluid and groundwater—comes up with the gas for most of the life of the well. Both types of water need to be treated because they are highly saline and therefore toxic to plants and aquatic life. In addition, their high dissolved solids content can overwhelm municipal treatment facilities and affect local drinking water supplies.
Firms that supply the fracking industry with chemicals, equipment, and services are looking to increase their share of this burgeoning market. The market for equipment for treating water from North American oil and gas wells totaled $900 million in 2012, according to GWI. Investment in conventional treatment equipment is expected to rise by 10% per year from 2010 to 2025, while investment in desalination equipment is expected to rise by 20% annually, the consulting firm says.
Firms including Dow, GE, and BASF are developing ways to make flowback and produced water environmentally safe. At the same time, these companies are also developing processes to treat some flowback and produced water so that they can be reused in the fracking process. For example, firms must often remove salts or other impurities, which can potentially clog the fractures from which they are trying to extract oil and gas, Reible notes.
Expertise in inorganic chemistry is critical to developing a treatment technology tailored to the specific challenges of a particular well or formation, he says. “There is no turnkey solution that you can buy off the shelf. In each instance, there is a lot of work involved in developing the most efficient and cost-effective solution, and chemists and chemical engineers need to be a part of that effort.”
Chemists and chemical engineers are also pitching in to help satisfy growing demand from the mining industry for new wastewater treatment processes.
As regulators set much lower limits on wastewater discharge permits, companies in the mining and coal-fired power industries are required to treat their waste with more technologically complex processes, which involve membrane filtration, biological treatment in which microbes are used to remove selenium, and vapor-compression evaporation, Koon notes. These processes are new to firms in these industries. As a result, they need to rely on chemical engineers and other scientists “who understand these processes and can design and operate them to produce the consistently good results required to meet the new permits,” he adds.
Chemistry and chemical engineering students who aspire to work in the field of industrial wastewater treatment and reuse should obtain a strong foundation in inorganic chemistry and also take water treatment technology courses that are typically offered within universities’ civil and environmental engineering departments, Reible says. Knowledge of technologies that use microbes, membranes, or specialized materials such as nanomaterials helps candidates stand out among other job seekers, he adds.
Koon recommends that students looking to break into the industrial wastewater treatment field gain experience by working on projects with organizations such as Engineers Without Borders or through internships or short-term jobs.
In addition, students should polish their interview skills. “They must be alert to the world around them and be able to carry on an interesting conversation in interviews,” Koon advises. They should be able to project the qualities that employers are looking for in entry-level employees. Companies are seeking people who “exhibit ethical behavior, can work effectively with others, and have the potential to become leaders within their organizations,” he explains.
When recruiting chemical engineers, BASF Water Solutions’ Muroski seeks candidates with an entrepreneurial bent. “I’m looking for people who can think outside the box, take a bit of a risk, and come up with unique solutions—especially those that meet customer needs for saving money or energy.” Toward that end, she examines a candidate’s track record and assesses his or her energy level, enthusiasm, and ability to ask provocative questions.
Making the effort to develop the skills and experience needed to land a job in the industrial water treatment arena can yield big dividends for chemists and chemical engineers. The water industry “provides many challenging and interesting problems to address,” says GE Power & Water’s Stanley. “It’s an inspiring field to be involved in as the needs of clean water in society are only increasing with population growth and environmental stresses,” he adds. “Being able to make an impact—by helping industry recover and reuse water—is very satisfying.”
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