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Raw Materials – Water Purification
Singapore: Pooling Resources
Singapore has established itself as the world’s "Water Hub"—a perfect place for Siemens Water Technologies, with its worldwide water R&D activities. Working with local partners, the company is developing energy-efficient water treatment technologies there.
The building on Toh Guan Road is a functional structure with a plain facade, plenty of parking, and a foyer straight out a typical high school. And in fact schoolchildren often visit on class trips. But the people who actually study here are older. They are researchers from around the world who have come to Singapore’s "Water Hub" to develop solutions to one of the century’s greatest challenges—how to provide everyone on the planet with clean water, and to do so inexpensively, with the minimum of energy and in an environmentally responsible way.
The answer to this question just might be right here in this building, in a large hall that houses dozens of devices—networks of water tanks, tubes, hoses, new water purification technologies and blinking instruments for analysis. Monitors in the hall display measurement data, and in one corner a laser camera shoots bright flashes of light through a glass cylinder filled with water. "We’re working on eight projects and around 20 processes here—everything from simulations of fluid dynamics to refining our advanced membrane technology," says Rüdiger Knauf, who is responsible for worldwide R&D at Siemens Water Technologies.
A key partner in the Water Hub, Siemens established its global headquarters for water technology R&D here in 2007. Siemens Corporate Technology also operates a lab at the site. "Singapore will be the center and expansion springboard for all our innovation-related activities," says Siemens Water Technologies Managing Director Chuck Gordon. The Water Hub location will thus supplement existing R&D facilities at six locations in the U.S., Germany, and Australia. The 25 scientists who work in the new laboratories registered 12 patents after just a few months of operations. "Our plans were ambitious from the beginning, but we’re still growing faster than even we expected," says Knauf, the director of the new center.
Pure Water for Singapore. That’s not surprising, given that the Singapore government has given a boost to international research efforts in water processing and treatment technologies that amazes even veteran R&D experts. As a result, Singapore is now the global center for the water purification industry. It realized much earlier than others that water technology would be a future growth industry. "Singapore’s government and research institutes were quicker than their counterparts in recognizing the urgency surrounding water management issues and associated technologies, so they are very proactive in promoting them," says Gordon. "That makes Singapore an ideal location for us."
Singapore, as an island nation with an area of only 700 km², has had to cope with scarce resources for years. That’s why more than ten years ago the government began to investigate new techniques for safeguarding the water supply for the country’s 4.6 million inhabitants. Among other things, the city-state built one of the world’s first large plants for processing wastewater and converting it back into drinking water (see Pictures of the Future, Spring 2006, Singapore). The plant processed 40,000 m³ of water per day in 2006. Plans call for this figure to be increased to 210,000 m³ by 2012. Most of the processed water is used by various branches of industry that require pure water, and Siemens has been supplying the necessary processing technology.
Desalination Power. Recycling is just one possibility for safeguarding Singapore’s water supply. Another approach is to use seawater. Here again—as with all other processes related to the water cycle—the key question is: How can such a system be organized in an inexpensive, environmentally sound, and energy efficient manner? To help answer this question, Singapore’s government provided innovative companies with $300 million in research funding. It also networked the country’s leading research institutes and administrative bodies, including Nanyang University, the A*Star development agency, and the Public Utilities Board, which established the Water Hub. This network has ensured availability of state-of-the-art labs, access to well-trained personnel, and opportunities to conduct field tests. Siemens has been joined in Water Hub by other globally-operating companies, and around 400 people now work at the site..
In June 2008, Singapore staged the first "International Water Week" exhibition that in the future will bring the entire industry together each year. During this year’s exhibition, the Singapore government announced it was providing US $3 million in research funding for the "Singapore Innovative Technology Challenge." The goal was to find a technology capable of cutting in half the cost of converting seawater into drinking water. Many companies submitted concepts, with Siemens emerging as the winner. Instead of desalinating seawater by means of energy-intensive heating and vaporizing processes, the Siemens concept involves channeling water through an electric field. This reduces energy consumption per cubic meter of water from the ten kilowatt hours (kWh) common at conventional facilities to just 1.5 kWh. Even the best of the previous technologies based on reverse osmosis used twice this. "That’s a major breakthrough," says Gordon. "Because of this development, we’ll be seeing more seawater desalination in the future."
Hungry Cannibals. Winning the Singapore Innovative Technology Challenge was a big boost for Siemens researchers at the Water Hub. "It serves as a confirmation by the world’s leading independent experts that Siemens is on the right track with its development projects," says Knauf, who is already preparing to address the next challenge. His researchers are now working on a new technique for minimizing sewage sludge, which is a major problem for operators of water treatment plants.
"People don’t realize just how much of this stuff accumulates," says Knauf. "You need a convoy of trucks just to remove the sludge from a single plant." Before the sludge residue can even be transported, however, it has to be dehydrated and often dried in gigantic heaters, which consume lots of energy. To avoid this, Siemens developed the "Cannibal Process" in which much of the sludge is broken down biologically, using bacteria. This has led to approximately a 50-% reduction in sludge mass. Hub scientists also have ideas about how to harness sewage treatment processes in completely novel ways. One possibility, for example, is to manage the decomposition process in such a manner that methane gas is created, which in turn can be used to produce electric power. "The procedures for this are currently in the test phase, but we’ll soon be starting a pilot project," says Knauf.