Chief Technology Officer Interview - Trends and Developments

De Nora sat with Global Water Intelligence in January 2019 to discuss the company's vision and goals.

What are the main elements of your technology strategy in terms of accelerating future growth?

We are finding the right mix of short and medium/long-term actions, balancing the effort between product development and basic research activities. We are especially focusing on combining technologies and products to provide innovative solutions that address increasingly stringent regulations that cannot be met using just one technology. For example, we have developed advanced oxidation systems (AOPs) by combining innovative electrodes and coating for our ozone technology.

In Hong Kong, we recently won the bid to provide the city’s drinking water disinfection thanks to an innovative, one-of-a-kind system. The solution for Hong Kong was developed by combining three technologies already in our portfolio: on-site chlorine generation through an electrolytic membrane cell, a legacy De Nora business; the Capital Controls® gas feed and instrumentation technologies, modified to manage wet chlorine; and our EST™ scrubbing tower to ensure maximum security in densely populated communities.

We are also advancing our product portfolio to make our products increasingly energy efficient and "smart," enabling monitoring of critical pollutants and controlling the dosage of chemicals.  In the oil and gas market, for example, we’ve customize mobile solutions to meet seasonal needs, increasing water treatment capacity to allow maximum flexibility while reducing capital expenses.

Looking at a more long-term strategy, we conduct basic research activities and monitor those technologies that can reduce environmental impact. For example, we’re researching new filtration media that more effectively removes different types of contaminants, including new emergent and micro-pollutants, and which are less susceptible to bacterial charge proliferation.

In short, the main elements of our strategy are to combine existing technologies, improve them in terms of water and energy efficiency, make them smart and conduct basic research activities.

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

We are looking at all new technologies that enable water and energy savings and - reuse of process water and wastewater. We believe that any technology that has the potential to reduce the use of chemicals is relevant. Examples of these activities include technologies that improve the contact between the oxidizing substance and the pollutants for a better distribution of ozone in water; smart technologies that allow constant monitoring of contaminants and control the dosage of chemicals; self-cleaning systems that do not require the use of chemicals such as self-cleaning electrodes; and systems that minimize the use of raw materials like salt in the electrolytic processes.

Technologies for on-site production, both electrochemical and otherwise, remain a key element of our value proposition. By producing on site, we limit our customers’ risks and costs related to transport and storage of chemicals; future innovation will also limit the production of chemicals themselves.

What is your annual R&D spend in water-related activities as a percentage of revenues? Do you plan to increase/decrease this?

Annual internal investment is around 3% in product development. Expenses and investment in basic research projects are not included because they are factored in our corporate R&D budget and are primarily run with the support of major universities and research centers in the US, Europe, and Japan.

We are constantly increasing investment in R&D since we believe it is key to playing a distinctive role in the market and sustaining our projected growth.

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

The major gap today is in “smart” technology. Our products are becoming more and more automated and interactive but we’re not completely there yet. We’re working on that.

Generally, I think the gap is more in our capability to maximize our technologies, more than on the products themselves. Combining the technologies together, developing new treatment process, and exploring new applications is a key part of our R&D efforts.

Another recent successful solution, similar to the project in Hong Kong, was made in the oil and gas market by combining chlorine produced on site with a gas feed system. We have provided several electrochlorination systems that dose sodium hypochlorite on site,  removing iron as iron oxide and at the same time disinfecting the produced water in the fracking process. This innovative combination of technologies offers a huge value to our customers in terms of reduced process costs, usage and transport of chemicals. The technology was already in our portfolio but we modified it to meet a particular market need, making it smarter and mobile.

How are you advancing De Nora’s smart water solutions strategy?

In the short term, we are equipping our systems with remote control capability to monitor operating and process parameters, and in the future, we’ll be able to monitor the concentration of the same pollutants in water. This will reduce the presence of operators on site while allowing timely intervention in case of malfunction. In addition, data recording and analysis over time allow a continuous improvement of the process to increase efficiency . 

We are also working on smart systems that not only monitoring but also having active functions, like advanced chemical dosing systems. Dosage of chemicals will be based on the real-time water composition so that it is targeted to real treatment needs.

Finally, we are working on predictive maintenance for our electrochemical systems, using nearly a century of experience and knowledge of electrochemical coatings.

What innovations are needed in the disinfection/oxidation technology area? 

Some innovations are comparable to those of systems in other technological areas: even in the case of disinfection, it is necessary to develop high energy efficiency technologies where electricity is used, and smart systems that allow reduced dosage of chemical compounds.  It is also necessary to develop low-residue technologies generating few or even zero by-products. Of course, there has been increasing attention to these issues and increasingly stringent regulatory limits on both municipal and some industrial sectors, especially food and beverage. Development of effective technologies against biofilm is also a relevant topic.

In addition to energy efficiency and the reduction of by-products, innovations needed in oxidation, a De Nora key area of expertise, include the development of mobile or delocalized solutions. This will help address the seasonal needs of communities that are affected by tourism as well as certain processes in some industrial sectors.

Are there any technology challenges for ballast water treatment (BWT) currently? If so, how can this be overcome?  

Ballast water treatment is no more complicated than any other water treatment in terms of its principle, although there are significant differences from land-based treatment: the installation platform is mobile; large flow rates of near-random water quality are treated; and the treatment standard is strict, dealing with higher order organisms than those usually found in municipal plants. Ballast water treatment equipment is subject to influences such vibration and ship motion, changes in temperature and humidity, and power fluctuations.

Along with many other manufacturers, De Nora has experienced issues with third-party components, such as filters and instrumentation, as we all source these items from the same limited pool of producers. However, driven by our ethos of continuous improvement, De Nora is committed to working with both customer and supplier to ensure that problems are addressed, and enhanced solutions are developed.

There are a lot of newer BWT companies on the scene, quickly designing and building in response to legislation, and many are bowing to the pressure of the fast and cheap mentality. They are struggling to manage the complex logistical and chemical solutions while reaching the high levels of reliability and operability that ship owners and operators expect.

De Nora is addressing these technology challenges with knowledge and experience gained over 95 years of electrolytic product innovation. From a development perspective, we have improved our BALPURE® ballast water treatment system with enhanced safety features and self-cleaning electrodes, consistent with our development philosophy.

Which one of De Nora’s recent innovations has made the greatest impact in the water sector and why?

While we do not have a breakthrough solution in our portfolio, the continuous improvement of our products and the vast experience gained over decades of activities allow us to be considered innovators, at least in the electrochemical technologies. We invented metallic anodes coated with catalyst, seawater electrochlorination, and self-cleaning electrodes that replace chemicals with a chlorinator for the disinfection of pools. We have advanced tertiary filtration that allowed water remediation all over the world.

Which of your end-markets that you sell water solutions into has the greatest need for more effective technologies?

More stringent regulations and lower contaminants limits, e.g. in drinking water, should make the municipal sector more demanding, but with a slow regulation process in Europe and the slow-down of the EPA process, the full adoption of new and better systems and solutions will be delayed. In the industrial sector, we expect to see the more water-intensive industries - O&G, power and F&B – demanding innovative technologies as a result of water scarcity and more stringent discharge limits.

Where are you looking for new ideas for innovation outside of De Nora (i.e. partnerships with universities, in other industrial sectors etc.)?

A few years ago, De Nora introduced the open innovation process aimed at collecting ideas from outside the company and accessing a broad spectrum of competencies that we either did not have or would require prohibitively high investments if they developed internally. These sources are different, depending on the specific project and need: universities, research centers, start-ups, technology providers. But participation in consortia and projects financed with industrial partners is also a relevant element.  Partnership and co-development, including with customers, represent a key and historical component to De Nora strategy: not only developing new products and technologies but also establishing industrial joint ventures.

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

I believe the water treatment sector will be pervaded by the same elements that are influencing other sectors, starting from the consumer sector. Therefore, smart technologies, data management and automated systems requiring less and less manpower will become increasingly relevant.

In term of demand, I expect to see increased need for solutions targeting Zero Liquid Discharge.  A successful approach will only be possible with an intimate collaboration of all the industries demanding large quantities of process water.

Can you give an example of a technology you have worked on which has showed initial promise but then struggled in commercialisation phase? What lessons did you take away from this?

We developed a system for the production on site of a pesticide to be used for crop treatment. The idea was great: a non-persistent pesticide that leaves no residue on crops, produced on site directly by the farmer using just water, salt and electricity. We designed different business models including pay-per-use. But we underestimated the timeline for product registration requirements and the need for a wide sales network. Product design was driven by a technical perspective more than a user perspective.

Lesson learned; we cannot overlook a deep market analysis and an accurate voice of customer before starting development on new products. Developing a new product is not just a matter of designing it; aall aspects of the project - from technical to certification and commercial need – must be considered from the beginning.

This is something we already knew, of course, but the experience reminded us how important it is.  As a result, our product management function has been intentionally strengthened with better leadership to offer insight in product lifecycle and in the choice of new product creation.

Published with thanks to Global Water Intelligence Magazine.