Non-Chemical Water Treatment Could Solve Looming Price Spikes and Shortages

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New technologies are being developed to provide non-chemical treatment of drinking water and wastewater.

The biggest commodities boom of the 20th century was a bust for water and wastewater utilities, which found themselves locked in a battle with manufacturers for vital water treatment chemicals over the past five years.  Competition for more chemicals to grow biofuel crops didn’t help, either.  Prices for some chemicals almost tripled between 2003 and 2008 as utilities scrambled to find scarce supplies.  Though the global recession helped to ease the price and supply issues, the next boom cycle could bring things to a boiling point.  Fortunately, more sustainable non-chemical water treatment methods are on the horizon and could play a role in stabilizing the situation over the long run.


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Water Treatment Chemicals and the Great Commodities Boom

Together, conventional water supply and wastewater treatment rely on a number of chemicals including coagulants such as aluminum sulfate and ferric sulfate, along with phosphate-based corrosion inhibitors.  Other chemicals are used to stabilize pH and to disinfect.  According to a study commissioned by the Water Environment Research Foundation released this spring, the unprecedented commodities price boom of 2003-2008 was a major factor in creating scarcities of chemicals used in treating drinking water and wastewater.  The Water Research Foundation commissioned a similar study that also identified the commodities boom, further noting that some prices have continued to rise in the U.S. and U.K. even though the boom has gone bust, due to long term contracts, a lack of competing suppliers, transportation issues, and weather events including floods and hurricanes.

The Long Term Outlook for Water and Wastewater Treatment

The Water Research Foundation study specifically notes that increased pressure from the agricultural sector related to biofuel production is another major factor that will continue to impact commodities related to water treatment, as “more than 2/3 of the increase in world corn production since 2004 has been used to meet increased biofuel demand in the United States.” The increased use of water for growing biofuel crops may be another factor. Combine a growth in biofuels production with population increases and consequent demands on water supply (and consequently a larger volume of wastewater to be treated), along with a global focus on improving water quality and wastewater treatment in developed and undeveloped countries as well as emerging powers like China and India, and the stage for another, perhaps more severe, chemical supply bottleneck when the world economy hits full recovery stride.

Non-Chemical Water and Wastewater Treatment

One emerging solution is in new chemical water treatments that are more costly but provide more bang for the buck, with less environmental side effects.  These “high-value” treatments are being rapidly adopted and may provide short term relief.  For the long run, leading international research organization The Freedonia Group points to the potential for growth in non-chemical water treatment.  A $4.6 billion industry in the U.S., it encompasses familiar non-chemical methods such as distillation systems or sand, earth, and carbon filters, as well as new technologies based on ion exchange resins, ultra violet exposure, membranes, and ozone equipment.

The Future of Non-Chemical Water Treatment

The use of magnets, phytoremdiation and ultrasound are among the methods seeing more widespread application in on-site wastewater or cooling water treatment, for example by hospitals and other institutions or businesses.  Inevitably, these new technologies are hitting the consumer market.  Last year, super-inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame introduced the “Slingshot,” a compression distillation system that can run on manure and generate electricity, to boot.

Image: M.arunprasad on wikimedia commons.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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