A fresh approach to clean water

Ontario company offers new twist on water treatment

There is a demand for innovative technologies that can address a growing global concern — access to clean water. Forward Water Technologies, a small start-up based in Mississauga, believes it has the solution. The company is on the road to commercializing a proprietary technology that it says not only has the capability to pull fresh water from wastewater, but it can do this using very little energy, and at the same time, reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The key: an additive the company calls "switchable salts."

A new view on water treatment

There are several methods of treating wastewater today, but each method has its own challenges. Reverse osmosis, for example, relies on hydraulic pressure to separate clean water from wastewater, but it is very energy intensive and expensive, particularly for large-scale applications. Forward osmosis is another well-known concept. It uses a membrane and a highly concentrated draw solution to pull fresh water from wastewater. It is more energy efficient, but once the fresh water is pulled from the salty water into the concentrated draw solution, which is also salty, you're left with two pots of salty water — and no fresh water.

Forward Water Technologies has discovered a way around this. The company is based on the research of Dr. Philip Jessop, an organic chemistry professor at Queen's University who discovered that certain benign chemicals, when grouped together, had the capability of switching from a salty state to a non-salty state. Working with Green Centre Canada, a Kingston-based organization that licensed the technology to find direct commercial applications for it, the team realized that by using the switchable salts, they could actually remove the salt from the draw solution and be left with fresh water, expending very little energy.

In this new approach, which uses forward osmosis, fresh water is pulled from wastewater through a semipermeable membrane into a solution with the switchable salts. Then, by adding heat, the salts turn into gas — carbon dioxide and TMA (Trimethylamine) — leaving behind fresh water. But that's not all. The team was able to engineer a method that captured the CO2 and TMA and returned them to the draw solution where they switch back to salt in the presence of water. It's a completely closed-loop process that only uses a fraction of the energy that would typically be used for cleaning up waste streams, and it enables the water to be recycled.

GreenCentre Canada launched Forward Water Technologies in 2012 to develop this technology further, because it saw the huge potential — a technology that could provide access to clean water for human consumption, agriculture and industry, and at the same time clean up waste streams and reduce the volume of the water that goes for disposal in a much more energy-efficient and cost-effective way than current processes.

Opportunities abound

There is an ongoing need for fresh water, from the southwest United States and Australia, to China, India and the Middle East. Even in Ontario, with its quarter-million inland lakes, rivers, groundwater resources and Great Lakes, there is a need to treat this water for the people who live here and the companies that operate here. And these opportunities run across many markets — from oil and gas and power generation to food and beverage and industrial wastewater.

Though there are many opportunities throughout the world and in many sectors, Forward Water's initial focus is on demonstrating commercial success in the Ontario industrial wastewater industry, which is a large market with the intensity of manufacturing that takes place in the Montreal-Windsor corridor. Forward Water also plans to target the oil and gas sector in Western Canada before moving on to other potential markets.

According to company's CEO, Howie Honeyman, this plan is well underway. Forward Water has already demonstrated the viability of the technology to industry through a small pilot project at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) in Mississauga. By using the XRCC's facility, equipment and skilled staff, Honeyman — the company's only full-time employee — was able to build a small plant to the exact specifications that would be demanded by an industrial operator at a fraction of what it would have cost to do on his own. And, by getting samples from prospective clients, Forward Water was able to use this engineering skid to successfully prove the viability of its technology at a small scale.

Moving forward

Now the company is moving onto the next step, which Honeyman calls "Design, Build and Operate". What that means is that Forward Water will build and operate its own industrial plant and, using its proprietary technology, offer water treatment services to key users — companies that have an abundance of wastewater, or that collect water and treat it themselves. Forward Water plans to be working with its first pre-commercial unit in the field by the end of 2017 and, by the summer of 2018 (or earlier), be ready to move onto the next step — "Design, Build and Transfer". At this stage, the company will build the equipment that can carry out this process, sell it to customers, and provide some training and services around that. The last stage in the business model is a licensing arrangement that will allow other companies to build and use the equipment themselves.

A place to call home

"Much of Forward Water's early success is thanks to the resources it's been able to take advantage of here in Ontario. From the support we've received from GreenCentre Canada and the provincial and federal government, to the intense water technology community and its fantastic professional base."
For example, the federal and provincial governments have been a major source of support so far through grants and other funding as they try to incentivize the development of new technologies in the province. The Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) are two particular sources that have been helpful to Forward Water, Honeyman says.

"Ontario has created the critical mass of business skills, manufactuing excellence, and both public and private financial support that can be brought to bear on new technology growth and makes it the ideal location for any emerging advanced technology company."

There is also a fervent water technology community in southern Ontario. The area is rich with people and organizations that understand the water industries. The Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC), for example, is tasked with accelerating water innovations through real-world demonstrations. It helps to make key introductions between private companies and academic researchers to accelerate and commercialize water technologies. WaterTAP is another organization that exists to champion and support Ontario's status as a water technology hub. It helps entrepreneurs, utilities and investors make the connections they need.

And, as it continues to enjoy the province's many resources, Forward Water will continue to work on its mission — cleaning up the world's water supply.