Depleting groundwater levels and surging demand is aggravating a global water crisis. And, India is among the worst hit as it tries to quench the thirst of an aspiring economy - rising demand from a burgeoning population and overexploitation by farms, businesses and cities. India's per capita water consumption at 297.3 cubic metre is more than the world average of 287.3 cubic metre. What's worse is that by 2025, per capita availability of water is likely to slip below the critical mark of 1,000 cubic metre. Amid the doom and gloom, however, a handful of young companies is making waves in water innovation, the rippling effects of which are being felt across continents. Business Today features two start-ups that could play an important part in changing the course of the perilous state of water resources. While the Netherlands-based Dutch Rainmaker is capturing fresh water droplets through wind turbines, Proklean Technologies, which operates out of Chennai, is bringing about a revolution by replacing water-polluting toxins with biodegradable solutions.
Out of thin Air
Groundwater does not recycle rapidly. According to a report - World Water Balance, 1978 - the average time of recharging aquifers containing groundwater is 1,400 years. And, considering that fresh water is just 3 per cent of the earth's reservoirs, depleting levels is a scary thought, and a reality. So, instead of digging deep down in the rocky terrain, Rainmaker let its innovative designs take air.
The Eureka moment for Joost Oosterling, founder and Chief Financial Officer of the company, however, were the words of his father, who was a wind energy projects veteran. "Wind energy has been used for pumping water and grinding seeds, but modern wind turbines can be used for other things, too." Soon, the young man, who had earned his Masters degree in Economics, stitched up a team of experts, who went on to help him design a wind turbine that would capture water molecules from air. That's not all. The company has also designed a system to desalinate ocean water. Most importantly, the solutions are not only cost-competitive, but cost-effective to a great extent.
Above all, the air-to-water system works across geographies with varying temperatures (from upwards of 15 degrees Celsius) having wind speeds of 3-18 metres per second.
"Wind and temperature are the main variables. Even with low humidity, at a higher temperature there is more water content in air, which translates into higher water production," says Oosterling. The wind turbine drives air through a heat pump or refrigerator, condensing the air into droplets and storing it in a tank. It produces up to 7,500 litres per day depending on climatic conditions.
Proklean's probiotic chemicals can replace chemicals such as surfactants used in textile processing. It is a $2-billion industry worldwideThe small-scale wind mill system designed by Rainmaker to desalinate ocean water works at temperatures above zero degree Celsius and produces 100,000 litres of fresh water a day. The system costs approximately $500,000, a fraction of the investment required for large-scale desalination plants, and can run for 20 years with minimum maintenance. "The system can be deployed at the back of a truck and can be shipped in for emergency water supply during military operations, war conditions, drought situations, etc.," says Oosterling.
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Though business is trickling in for Rain-maker, the pilots have grabbed eye balls from Kuwait and the Netherlands to Egypt and the US. "It is cost-competitive but not super cheap," says Nityen Ranjan Lal, Managing Director at the Netherlands-based clean technology venture firm Icos Capital, which has invested in the start-up. Lal says that efforts are also on to introduce the technology in India. "We have had discussions with some corporations and IFC in India but have not been able to arrive at an agreement yet."
Flush Out the Toxin
On April 29, 2015, heaps of toxic foam rose from three lakes in Bangalore to spill over the banks, and on to the motorways. On May 16, the Bellandur Lake was up in flames. It was, however, not the water of the lake, but rather the sludge of effluents, the oil and phosphorus on its surface, that caught fire. It was an awesome sight from a distance, but a dreaded one for the residents.
And, it's certainly not an isolated incident. Crores of rupees have been spent on cleaning the country's rivers and lakes of the toxic chemical deposits from industrial waste, and every year more funds are being allocated. All that money, however, has gone down the drain and into the depths of the muddied waters. Experts say it would require over a decade of continued efforts to clean the country's water bodies. But, what if we could identify the source of the menace and plug it before it reaches our fresh water reservoirs? That was exactly the thought behind the initiative of a young company from Chennai.
Dutch Rainmaker's air-to-water wind turbine system
Proklean is attempting to use probiotics, which can 'eat up' pollutants, to replace toxic chemicals used by polluting industries. The company, which was founded in March 2012 by S.S. Pillai, former CEO of US-based SCD Probiotics, IIM Ahmedabad graduate B. Chandrasekhar and Vishwadeep Kuila, former CEO of Oriental Cuisines, uses SCD Probiotics's products to replace harmful chemicals used in industrial production.
Proklean is focusing on the textile and leather manufacturing units - the ones mostly responsible for water pollution - and has developed biodegradable liquids that work equally well as the chemicals used traditionally in the leather industry to process hides or degrease raw leather. "Our products not only replace these chemicals, but perform better as they are zero-foaming products, reduce the requirement of water for washing and also complete the process faster, saving 20 per cent of the time required," says Vishwa-deep Kuila, Marketing Director, Proklean. Similarly, for the textile industry, the company's probiotic chemicals can replace 'surfactants', or industrial detergents, used for removing excess dyes and cleaning the fibre before dying.
The products are fast becoming popular across textile and leather manufacturing hubs in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. Says Amber Maheshwari, Vice President, Infuse Ven-tures, a cleantech venture fund that has invested in Proklean: "The application of their proprietary technology can have massive applications across other industries as well."
The market for Proklean is huge. The global market for surfactants, for example, is a $2 billion industry worldwide, and Rs 2,500 crore in India. The market for probiotic chemicals used in the leather processing industry in India is at Rs 500 crore to Rs 600 crore. Proklean also exports to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and South Africa, and is planning to expand to more countries.
In 2012, Proklean had raised Rs 2.5 crore from Chennai Angels and opted for a second round of funding in June 2015, of Rs 3.5 crore from Infuse Ventures, run by the Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneur-ship, IIM Ahmedabad. The company's revenues for 2014/15 stood at Rs 4.5 crore and it plans to touch the Rs 40-crore to Rs 50-crore-mark in the next five years. It is also working on capacity expansion. The major challenge for the start-up, however, is to market the products well. "It is important for the company to prove that its products are working. It's a gradual shift. It will take some time," says Maheshwari.
New Jersey-based Liquid Light has developed a proprietary technology that converts CO2, or carbon dioxide, into a range of commercially applicable multi-carbon chemicals.
The conversion process primarily uses carbondioxide as the base of its chemical synthesis process, along with other chemicals that are waste products of other industrial processes. The core beneficiaries of this technology are companies that can monetise their CO2 waste and, hence, reduce their carbon footprint. The company's first process is for the production of mono-ethylene glycol (MEG), which is used in the production of everyday products such as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET-based, plastic bottles.
The global market for MEG is estimated at $27 billion. A dozen clean technology focused investors, including Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital and Sustainable Conversion Ventures, have placed their bets on Liquid Light's patented technology, pumping in more than $15 million in funding. Among others, the company is co-founded by Emily Cole who also serves as Chief Science Officer at the start-up.
Several other innovators are also working in the area of converting carbon dioxide into usable chemicals. For instance, California-based Newlight Technologies uses micro-organisms to pull carbon out of methane and greenhouse gases, and converts it into cost-effective AirCarbon plastics. These plastics can be used for making furniture, bags, caps, cell phone cases or used for carbon-neutral packaging. The company has raised around $18.8 million in funding.