Gradiant’s CTO Prakash Govindan Discusses the Company’s Technological Future with Global Water Intelligence (“Global Water Intelligence”)


Published on 5 April 2020

Source: globalwaterintel.com

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What market drivers have been most important in shaping the direction of your technology strategy?

 

Gradiant has significantly evolved its technology roadmap since its inception, predominantly driven by the needs of our customers. When we started, we were laser-focused on servicing the oil & gas boom in the US, specifically in the Permian Basin. Our flagship product was the thermal brine concentrator, the Carrier Gas Extraction (CGE) process, which in its initial projects performed well. However, as we got into the thick of things in the oil field, we learned that for Gradiant to address the larger water problems in the Permian for our clients, we had to diversify our product base. We developed a mobile clarification system and a novel disinfection product line, which has helped us become one of the leading water treatment providers in the Permian.

 

Since 2016, Gradiant has set its sights on larger markets outside the US including China, India and the Middle East. In these markets we found that the cost of energy plays a larger role in the overall cost of water treatment. Deriving on our fundamental invention of CGE (using entropy minimisation techniques), we developed a membrane-based solution called Counter Flow Reverse Osmosis (CFRO), a completely pressure driven membrane-based brine concentration solution with low energy consumption requirements. That was one pivot.

 

Since 2016, Gradiant has set its sights on larger markets outside the US including China, India and the Middle East. In these markets we found that the cost of energy plays a larger role in the overall cost of water treatment. Deriving on our fundamental invention of CGE (using entropy minimisation techniques), we developed a membrane-based solution called Counter Flow Reverse Osmosis (CFRO), a completely pressure driven membrane-based brine concentration solution with low energy consumption requirements. That was one pivot.

 

A more recent pivot is for our Asian customers, where we found that the organic contaminants in their wastewater and associated environmental regulations for discharge were hugely problematic. Beginning in 2018 we have been developing a suite of advanced oxidation processes (AOPs).

 

What are the key technology areas you are looking at in your R&D activity and why?

 

In addition to our original laboratory in Boston, we now have the lab in Singapore, which has been operational for about 18 months and we have also set up labs in Chennai and Ningbo, China. In 2020 we hope to start deploying our suite of AOP products; there is no panacea for oxidation technologies and what is important is both oxidation potential but also selectivity – you don’t want your oxidant to burn everything in some cases. We have our own electrochemistry-based technology which we expect to give us an advantage at producing hydroxyl radicals, but another part of our offering will be more “off-the-shelf” oxidants like ozone.

 

Meanwhile, we have deployed three CFRO installations so far with a fourth under construction. CFRO is a system innovation to concentrate saline waters to much higher dissolved solids levels than regular RO can, however in order to give us better control over our destiny and reduce operational costs we have also been working on a specific membrane for CFRO. We think we can increase the flux pretty significantly relative to existing off-the-shelf membranes.

 

More early-stage technologies under development include the Directional Solvent Extraction, which uses a solvent with temperature-dependent solubility to extract fresh water from brines, and Ion Caging, our attempt at eliminating chemical use in warm lime softening. It’s a bit out there but we have some promising results with beaker tests. We’ll have an update on that in about 18 months’ time.

 

What gaps do you see in Gradiant’s water technology portfolio that could be strengthened?

 

At Gradiant we are essentially systems people and we have a lot of expertise around unit operations in membrane systems, but membrane science and manufacturing membranes has not been our forte. Recent experienced hires have been helping us develop a membrane for CFRO and we are definitely looking to continue to strengthen this skillset at Gradiant. We are also in the very early stages of an R&D project on ceramic UF membranes, a technology we licensed from a US east coast university.

 

How do you see Gradiant’s presence developing in the market for treating PFAS?

 

At Gradiant we believe PFAS requires a full solution and not just stand-alone unit operations being thrown at it. The focus so far has been on perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), but there are other compounds which are equally problematic. We definitely think AOP is part of the solution, as are other removal techniques including granular activated carbon, ion exchange, membranes and brine concentration. We primarily used brine concentration for pilot tests with the US Air Force but Gradiant is slowly starting to build the knowledge base to be involved with the PFAS market.

 

How do you see the role of technologies like Gradiant’s CFRO developing in the brine concentration space?

 

For me the appropriate analogy is seawater desal. Going back twenty years, reverse osmosis and the reduction in the cost of water because of implementing seawater RO has transformed that space, replacing thermal technologies like MED and MSF. It is analogous to what CFRO can do to brine concentration in two ways. Firstly, there have been brine concentration applications which have not been possible so far because of the higher cost of water associated with evaporators. CFRO will unlock all of those applications, including squeezing more seawater out of brine. Secondly, CFRO will almost certainly reduce the cost of water in existing applications, where if CFRO didn’t exist you would use an evaporator in that situation. There will certainly be a paradigm shift in cost there.

 

However, there is one exception, which is extremely highly contaminated industrial wastewaters such as from leather tanneries and textile mills and such, where complete pretreatment of the wastewater for organics and other contaminants that might scale or foul the membranes is not economically feasible. In those situations, a smart evaporator which is robust to scaling and fouling will have a very niche market.

 

Gradiant is expanding into Australia and the Middle East in 2020. What opportunities do you see there for Gradiant’s solutions?

We are going to deploy a CFRO project in Australia in 2020 and that country also has mining wastewater and coalbed methane, which both represent pretty decent sized markets for a small company like Gradiant. For the Middle East, we already have the project with Sawaco there with our CFRO, but similar seawater desal projects in Qatar and the UAE are in our pipeline. Oil and gas is also an interesting market, particularly as Saudi Aramco is an investor in Gradiant. We are hoping our CGE and other technologies can be applied there.

 

How do the sales of your different technologies break down between different geographies?

 

Of course, water treatment needs vary from country to country. In the US, our selective chemical extraction (SCE) mobile clarification solutions are widely adopted by the large oil companies, including Chevron. In China and India our bestseller is the CGE for textiles and coal-to-chemical wastewater applications. For Southeast Asia, it’s CFRO-based, brine concentration solutions in pharma and oil and gas and similar applications. One of the reasons I personally think Gradiant is going to do really well is due to our approach of selling differentiated cost advantageous products customised for different markets. You have to be a bit of a masochist to try it but it looks like we are succeeding.

 

How are you looking at greater involvement in the digital water space? What benefits will it bring to both your customers as well as Gradiant itself?

 

Because we engaged in a build-own-operate model for many of our treatment plants, we really felt the pain of the manual nature of some of the operations. Therefore, we have invested heavily in digitisation, specifically in three areas. One is system diagnostics, which is a massive area of expertise at Gradiant, specifically as it relates to handling variability in operating conditions (including water quality). The second is machine diagnostics, helping us prolong the life of assets. Thirdly, digital solutions that help us instruct how to operate our plants optimally, so we have all the data from the IoT going into the cloud, and I have engineers dedicated to analysing this stuff so that we run better.

 

Where are you looking for new ideas for innovation outside of Gradiant?

 

What I believe is quite unique to Gradiant as a small company is our excellent university partnerships. The mothership MIT is the obvious one but we also cooperate with the Singaporean universities NUS and NTU and other US institutions like the University of Florida and Northeastern. These universities are hotbeds of innovation and Gradiant is an ideal tool to bring it to the market. We’ve also partnered with non-university groups such as Battelle, a non-profit corporation, with whom we have been working with on the CFRO technology. They were the first movers in that technology.

 

What do you think will be the game changing technologies in the water sector in the next ten years? What is ripe for disruption?

 

I believe water quality analytics is ripe for invention. For true digitisation to happen, especially in the industrial segment, one big technical bottleneck is better analytics. Laboratories can take two or more weeks to return results of sample testing and there are also new contaminants like PFAS. To my knowledge, there is no commercial way of measuring PFAS at the site using a handheld or an inline device, so how are you going to implement PFAS solutions which have effluent KPIs without having those devices?