A while ago, we were blown away by a project where a Texas-based S2C Global Systems is planning to ship supertankers of Alaskan drinking water to India. Many big boys smell an opportunity here. However, with the Earth’s population growing, reaching 9-billion by the mid-century, and considering the disproportions in the world water availability, we will need far more than a worldwide water exchange aside the stock market.
Water shortages that will emerge during this century will change the way we think about water.
So, what is the future of water technology? Projects like The Water Project and products like LifeStraw are very welcome, but are just the beginning. After going into details you will be overwhelmed by the variety of problems related to water – availability, efficiency of use, waste, hydropower, policies and so on.
However, things are not that good with common knowledge. It is often thought that the problem is only in lack of clean drinking water in the Third World. This is a typical catastrophe-first mindset. The actual problem exists already today and is in lack of water supply as such all around. It is set to escalate sooner than we expect, as in 20 years we will most probably need “a second Earth”, meaning that we will need new products and solutions driven by completely new understanding of how we use up this valuable natural resource.
All water related products can be divided into 5 major groups:
- Drinking water
- Climate monitoring
- Water usage efficiency
- Energy/Power generation
- Protection of water environments
All these have sub-groups, many of which are depending on government policies. Additionally, as already mentioned previously, a completely new business area is emerging – bulk water trade. So, altogether six groups that can all be looked at as separate industries. As constraints boost creativity, the next decade will force us in developing new products in these fields.
1. Drinking water
If you are 20-something, then most probably fresh water will run out in many regions of the world by the time you will retire. At this water loss rate (6% per year), new products in this group have most immediate impact on quality of life. Another driver of this is contaminated water that is not drinkable. Please, have a more in-depth overview on drinking water on Wikipedia.
There have been a lot of discussions on how to convert saltwater of the oceans into drinkable water, but this still is a very unsustainable way, with high energy input and does not help inland and countries without any access to sea. So let’s concentrate here on products that are meant to assure clean and drinking water from freshwater sources.
- Instant filtering products for remote locations – converting contaminate water from ponds, rivers and lakes into drinkable water. These can be both mobile (personalized like a toothbrush, e.g. LifeStraw), or stationary filtering systems for different scales of populations (from small villages to small towns). We need to develop products with easy to replace, reusable filters to avoid critical situations for remote locations.
- Easy to install, scalable water infrastructure – this is one of the fields which is already well developed, but could be managed more efficiently (see product group 3). Additionally, there is still a lot to do in policies and sales for maximizing complete-water filtering systems for homes, as the bottled water sales volumes are increasingly high. One of the latest announcements in that field is Filtrete Water Station, a 3M and IDEO collaboration to create a more sustainable solution than Evian and more mobile than Brita.
- Instant fresh water indicators – children, tourists, hikers, globetrotters. Everyone. It is vitally important for people not knowing what they drink, to instantly find out if the water they are about to drink will give them diarrhea, intoxicate or possibly cause other problems. Currently you just guess.
- Environmentally-safe cleaning products – ecological laundry and dishwashing detergents, soaps, etc. As these products exist already today, we need better business models to make that mindset change happen. It is very unlikely that governments will reach a common understanding, so we are on our own.
- Other survival gear – there are numerous ways how to extract clean water out of air, snow, ice and so on. These are usually survival or army related products, but could be extended for broader audiences. Not mentioning that here it is possible to invent new ways and methods, which would lead to product innovation.
2. Climate monitoring
Oceans have been truly underestimated as regards to climate change agent and source of information. After all, the water covers 71% of Earths territory. Flydog Marine’s Profiler Buoy ‘Mona’ is a good example among others, which allows measurement in different depths of the sea and thus allowing take preventive decisions by accurately predicting the characteristics of the sea parameters. Thus, it helps to sustain the eco-system.
Contact measurement system is just one way. Today, the most far-spread way to measure sea condition is distant measuring. Scientists measure sea conditions with sophisticated sensors via Earth-orbiting satellites. This is an area which at could be democratized further than it is today.
This business area will show great momentum in the future, providing us short and long-term data for helping us to save lives and the planet.
3. Water usage efficiency
According to James Martin, “the mankind is using about 160 billion tons more water each year than is being replenished each year by rain. If this water were carried out in water trucks, it would require a 300,000-mile-long convoy of trucks every day – a convoy length 37 times the diameter of the Earth.” However, clean drinking water is only a part of that problem.
A whopping 70% of the world’s water consumption is used for agricultural purposes and 22% for industrial processes.
Taking all the hidden use of water into account, you will understand the scale of this issue. This is a particularly interesting area as there are endless possibilities for finding ways to use water more efficiently.
- Industrial cooling-water circulation (re-usage) systems – pulp & paper, chemicals, oil & gas, food, raw materials. You name it. Every production based industry uses up overwhelming amounts of fresh water for cooling, cleaning or filtering purposes. Here, it not that much about the products, but the methods and systems, the mindset how and why to use the fresh water in the process. In many cases, it depends on market demand. However to a large extent, a normal person doesn’t really know the process behind the product. Therefore there is a lot to do in policies, to eliminate any unnecessary waste from these processes. Lean thinking is the key.
- Hydroponics – the first soil-free plants were grown already in the 17th century, but hydroponics is still an area for fanatics and DYI-guys. When could we see hydroponics invasion in the cities and other overpopulated areas? It would save billions of tons of water and fuel that is used for food transportation each year.
- Water efficient home-appliances (washing machines, dishwashers, etc.) – actually, this does not only concern electrical appliances, but using water for taking showers and other home activities. Here, calculate your water footprint and find 25 useful ways how to save water at home.
- Analytics tools – self-learning analytics tools that indicate losses and where to save water.
- Water heating and conserving warm water – solar, solar, solar. Photovoltaic panels, outdoor water tanks in warm regions, fireplaces, insulated indoor water tanks in colder regions, etc.
- Water softeners – help to reduce costs by 70% and should be mandatory for all households. Today, some use salt in dishwashers, but hey, you would really question if that’s rational in case the incoming water is already softened.
Collecting and utilizing rain water – if it rains in the city, most of the water is actually redirected to sewage. What a waste! A lot of that rain could be collected and used as washing water, flushing water, water supply for hydroponics and other local plantation / food growing, washing buildings, washing the roads. Endless opportunities.
4. Energy/Power generation
Rivers, seas and oceans act as motion agents that are used for power generation. Compensative water reservoirs are used as an alternative during power shortages. It seems that all water related things are already invented, but that sounds as ridiculous as to say that everything in the world is already invented?
Secondly, there are well-known downsides to hydropower. Water ecology and water availability issues highly question the necessity of dams, as seen with Egyptians and the Nile. An alternative idea would be to create osmotic energy, created already back in the 1970’s, is definitely a future scenario for Norway’s Statkraft, planning to open the first prototype plant in 2015. Go Osmosis!
On top of that, the same water flow that is currently used for generating electricity could be used as a transportation path, as it was back in the old days. Platforms, guides, stack systems, water-tight floating packages, fences, cranes, all that stuff. This is by far the most unused transportation way today.
As water-related conflicts set to escalate, it is quite smart to rethink how the waters could become of a smarter use to us than they are today.
5. Protection of water environments
Here it’s more about what governments are able to leverage. Control systems, filters, valves and gauges are all there, but we still have high risk in oil & gas industry, food processing and chemical industry.
Protection of water environments is more about responsibility and pretty much keeping your room nice and tidy, so you could come back the next day.
What could be done is to really start monitoring the content of the waters, with smart dust technology integrated to contact measurement systems.
6. Bulk water trade
Clean water will turn to a globally tradable commodity. Bulk water trade will boost clean container development, ships, port equipment and other required products and systems. However, as the segment is just beginning to show its’ potential, it is hard to predict, what is going to be the most used solution. It may be ships, but it can also be piping, trucks or ,god help us, planes. The main question here is how to prevent wars?
The externalized costs of goods in the modern world and disproportion in water availability really tackle water as a human right.
It all comes down where you live. In the future, it may mean a price of a ton of water on open market. Freshwater exchange is not an issue today, but we are not far from it either. Today, NYSE. Tomorrow, NYWE.
Capitalizing on resource shortages?
Water’s ecological circulation functions freely without human interference. Now and more than ever, we are influencing the proper functioning of the system. The Earth is a “living organism” – naturally created water supply is geographically disproportional and functions as a one system.
Humans have inhabited and divided the Earth by into countries and regions. While global economies expand, create borderless business models and have customers based on their values, political borders are becoming more and more of a life blocker.
The fact that sources of water are too often considered to be a territorial (national), other than a common resource (and part of a common ecosystem), poses a great obstacle for creating affordable systems or products which would maximize the usage efficiency of water and a great risk for escalating water-related conflicts.
What we need is a common, worldwide agreement (such as the Kyoto protocol for CO2, but by all means – a one that would actually work) that would act as a framework for fresh water distribution, monitoring requirements, efficiency measures, human rights and protection of water environments.
As there is no workaround without water, reaching a global agreement on this matter could be much easier than carbon emissions, but might come already on the 11th hour.
Without this agreement, international and cross-region trade between countries will make rich countries even richer and poor countries poorer.
Even if such an agreement will not be signed, this sector will have a demand that can triple-fold the whole water sector. Communities throughout the world will start to act as change agents, driving the demand for water-related product innovation.
Please share with us your ideas regarding to water products, water industries and water technologies. Flydog is already having business in climate control industry, designing and producing sea monitoring systems and we are not done here yet. As there are hundreds of millions people in the world today suffering the lack of pure water, we obviously have to contribute much more to the development of water technologies.