There’s water and then there’s water.
The magic elixir of human life is also the lifeblood of industry and experience shows the two needs don’t always play nicely together.
One of the biggest challenges in industrial wastewater treatment has been to separate out ammonia or high salt concentrations.
That’s where British Columbia-based Saltworks Technologies has carved out a niche with a suite of technologies serving a diverse range of sectors, from NASA to mining.
Adrian Ebsary, Saltworks’ director of marketing, says the key to the company’s success has been the innovative approach of doing more with less.
Saltworks, founded by two Simon Fraser University MBA students, Joshua Zoshi and Ben Sparrow a decade ago, started out desalinating water using a fraction of the energy consumed by traditional systems and that’s what attracted NASA early on. They bought a system to experiment with on projects like the Space Station.
“Then there has been an evolution of the company over time since that solar powered technology,” says Ebsary. “We’ve moved onto our two main products, an evaporative crystallizer and a membrane technology. Both have different economic fits for different water problems.”
As Ebsary explains, Saltworks designs, builds and assembles desalination, brine management and chemical recovery systems using its patented Flex EDR and SaltMaker technologies, conventional reverse osmosis and hybrid systems.
Their processes have turned a lot of heads, especially close to home at western Canadian oilsands and fracking sites, for example, where vast quantities of water are used to extract bitumen from the ground. That contaminated water ends up in settling ponds where dealing with it has proved to be an expensive challenge.
Water is a finite resource in some areas. Pulling too much from the watertable and waterways can cause drought and shortages downstream for other users – towns and cities – who depend on the supply.
It’s why their treatment systems, which are modular and mounted in shipping containers that can be easily unplugged and moved to another site, are popular in the energy patch and why big hitters such as BP, ConocoPhillips, Cenovus and Teck Resources jumped on board as investors early in the company’s development.
Saltworks also just won the best Clean Technology category award at the 2017 BC Export Awards.
For customers in the energy sector their challenges are usually centered on disposal costs, he says, and while drilling disposal wells has been an option, they’re harder to drill now and those wells that are available often require trucking the contaminated water long distances.
“SaltMakers’ innovation is that it uses engineered plastics, low temperature and is extremely reliable,” Ebsary says, noting the interest starts at a 50 cubic metres a day requirement and climbs from there. “The advantage is that compared to other evaporator systems, which use high temperatures and metal surfaces which suffer from scaling and need then to be de-scaled, we don’t have that problem because we have no metal parts. ”
As is almost standard today, the units are also connected to Saltworks monitoring online 24/7, which will alert operators to any issues, can perform some remote operations and offers predictive maintenance.
The system is also designed so that if a section goes down for any reason, the rest of the system will continue to operate, says Ebsary, adding regular maintenance also doesn’t require a shut down.
The goal is a zero liquid discharge, whether the liquid is evaporated to air or captured and recycled for use in a closed-loop system, though he adds some just concentrate the brine solution to a point where it’s easier to transport.
The salt residue can also be repurposed, he says, and Saltworks is working with a mining company to deploy the salt as a de-icer inside the mine interior.
In the other techniques, polymers are added to the water, he said, but on return that water is again contaminated with salts that have a detrimental effect on the polymer’s benefits.
“So we can selectively take the salts out and in doing so save something like 65 per cent of the polymer costs because that water can be reused and those polymers are very expensive,” he says.
Further, because traditional membrane will swell and become ineffective once they encounter oil or organics, the EDR process is more efficient because it is based on ion filtration, he states.