Last week the Globe and Mail reprinted a book excerpt from Andrew Heintzman’s The New Entrepreneurs: Building a Green Economy for the Future which profiles businesses that are developing “cutting-edge, high-profit, clean-tech products and systems” for export to the global market.
This section is from Chapter Two: Water, Water Everywhere and New Ventures BC 2008 Winner Saltworks is front and center.
“It’s a good thing they’re not in retail,” my friend commented, as we searched for Saltworks, a Vancouver–based desalination company.
The job of finding Saltworks’ headquarters was complicated by the fact that the office is situated in the docklands, which were in lockdown in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Just to get to the street required passing a security check and showing photo ID. And once we’d made it through, finding the company proved to be no easy task.
After asking around, we were finally directed to an industrial building tucked away down a small alley near the water. A small homespun sign that read “Saltworks Receiving” greeted us at the door.
Despite the difficulty in finding them, for the last few months the world has been beating a path to Saltworks’ door. Ever since The Economist wrote a profile of their novel desalination technology, Saltworks has been the subject of attention from potential customers, investors, and the media. All of this interest is due to the fact that this little company tucked away in the docklands of Vancouver may just have a viable answer to the world’s water woes.
For many parts of the world where fresh water is scarce, desalination is viewed as an essential solution to shortages in clean drinking water. Currently desalination is used in more than 100 countries worldwide, and is expected to account for global expenditures of roughly $80 billion between 2005 and 2015. Many water-starved nations are already relying heavily on desalination, including countries in the Middle East, as well as Australia. And China and India will likely turn to desalination to provide water for their growing populations.
Today there are really only two commercial technologies for water desalination, and both have serious drawbacks. The first technology requires extremely high pressure to force seawater through membrane filters; the second technique uses evaporation and condensation. What they have in common is extremely high energy needs. This energy intensity adds significant electricity costs, and results in increased greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s ironic that the demand for these plants — driven in part by climate change, which is causing water deprivation — may in turn become a new source of greenhouse gas emissions. So for a number of reasons a race is on to find a more energy efficient way to desalinate water.
Saltworks’ founders Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi met at Simon Fraser University. Sparrow had been a senior project manager at BC Hydro, where he oversaw power plant rehabilitation. But he had a secret passion for thermodynamics, which led him to come up with the idea of using thermo-ionic energy to create what he calls a “seawater battery.”
Sparrow decided to take a master’s in business administration at Simon Fraser University in part to hone his business skills to launch this new venture. There, he met Joshua Zoshi and the two began working together. A few years after graduating, the pair entered their business plan into the >New Ventures BC competition in 2008, and won first prize overall as well as a sustainability prize. They received $160,000 in prize money, which provided the first capital investment for their new company.
The day I arrive, Sparrow is busy at his computer, fully immersed in his work. When he jumps up to meet me, I notice he looks the part of the young scientist, his boyish features accentuated by slightly dishevelled brown hair. The office looks to be part laboratory and part demo plant, which is basically what it is. The boardroom where I am given the company presentation is spare and undecorated; there is only a small wooden table and a couple of chairs. The rest of the office is equally simple and unadorned.
It reminds me that despite all of the international attention the company has received, it’s less than two years old. But for a company like Saltworks, none of that really matters.
What does matter is the complicated science experiment of pipes and plastic containers that takes up much of the floor space. This is their first pilot plant, which is expected to produce 1,000 litres of desalinated water a day. It’s an important step to developing their first commercial plant, which they plan to open later this year.
Sparrow leads me through the process with pride. The pilot plant represents years of theoretical work coming to fruition, and he is clearly excited. Using what they call a “thermo-ionic energy conversion system,” Saltworks claims to be able to reduce the use of electrical energy by 80 per cent compared to other commercial desalination technologies.
The process evaporates seawater by spraying the water onto a black surface that naturally captures solar energy. This creates a highly concentrated stream of salt water with roughly 18-per-cent salinity, as opposed to regular seawater, which has a salinity of 3.5 per cent.
The highly concentrated stream of water is then pumped into a chamber along with three units of regular seawater, then separated from two vessels of regular seawater by a material made fundamentally from treated polystyrene, which acts as an “ion bridge.” The ion bridge allows positively charged ions to pass through one vessel and negatively charged ions to pass through the other.
Because salt is made up of two ions — sodium, which is positively charged, and chlorine, which is negatively charged — the highly concentrated water thus equilibrates its two neighbouring vessels of water, sending positive ions to one and negative ions to another.
The resulting two chambers are then exposed again to regular salt water with an ion bridge, which draws out sodium and chlorine, thus reducing the salinity of the resulting stream of seawater.
The beauty of the process is that it requires very little external energy and no chemicals, resulting in lower operating costs. The main energy source comes from dry air — evaporating salt water to produce the concentrated saltwater fuel. And because the system is low pressure, they can replace expensive stainless steel, which is used in most desalination plants, for cheaper plastic parts, thus reducing capital costs and making these plants more affordable to build.
The next step for the company is to scale the plant to 5,000 litres a day, and then build a larger plant that can produce 20,000 litres or more of desalinated water.
If they succeed, the name Saltworks will be a lot better known in the future, and Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi will have found a solution to one of the greatest challenges humanity faces today.
Excerpted from The New Entrepreneurs: Building a Green Economy for the Future , by Andrew Heintzman (House of Anansi Press, 2010), in bookstores June 26th. Mr. Heintzman is president of Investeco Capital Corp., a private equity company that invests in for-profit environmental businesses.