In 2016, forward osmosis was a relatively new concept. At the time, WaterTAP profiled Forward Water Technologies, the Mississauga, Ontario company that was making headway piloting its special salt concentrate to treat wastewater without an externally-applied energy source.
These early lab trials verified the company’s proposed energy and cost savings. Findings indicated that the company’s technology could operate at as low as one-tenth of typical thermal energy processes. Furthermore, since forward osmosis makes water qualified for direct discharge, it eliminates the need for expensive and energy-intensive transport.
In the past year, Howie Honeyman, CEO of Forward Water, says that the company has set up test skids for commercial-scale trials. Three components have been crucial to this scale-up: A funding investment from Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, support from the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park, and a collaboration with Lambton College.
Due to adoption struggles, Honeyman questions whether Forward Water could have proceeded without the support of provincial and national funding agencies
“We have learned that the skeptical engineer is often the key threshold that initiates or halts adoption,” he says. “To convince engineers, you need an early commercial scale pilot that repeats lab results. However, that requires capital-intensive support.”
As of 2019, Forward Water is fully operational and expecting its first industrial client samples. The company will be testing at the cubic metre scale to get advanced information on how its process would perform at a commercial site. Honeyman says that these trials are no longer complimentary. The new revenue has allowed the company to onboard a junior engineer as well as full-time contract senior engineer to lead the work. The first customer is an end user in industrial wastewater, treating effluent from onsite operations.
Maximizing disposal well capability
The Forward Water solution is especially attractive to industries that use disposal wells. Procuring the licensing from the appropriate regulatory authority can be quite arduous. “Once an existing well is filled, depending on the classification of wastewater as either hazardous or non-hazardous, it can be extraordinarily difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to obtain and license a new site,” Honeyman says.
The company’s technology allows the client to maximize their disposal capacity by sending only the compacted concentrate down the well.
“We divert freshwater that would otherwise go down the well,” he says. “Instead of a cubic meter, only a few litres is disposed, which greatly augments the lifespan of the well.” For one client that inherited a brownfield site, Forward Water was able to extract up to 80% of the volume or more, expanding the well’s capacity significantly.
Expanding into the oil and gas industries
In tandem with the industrial wastewater pilot work, Forward Water has been scaling up its operations in the oil and gas industries with funding from Alberta Innovates in collaboration with Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC). The support has enabled the company to fabricate a commercial skid to target oil and gas clients.
“Oil and gas are unique areas in industrial wastewater,” Honeyman says. “The types of materials found in these waste streams differ greatly from the manufacturing sector.”
Based on the company’s results, potential partners and industry experts have expressed an interest in its applications, especially in the hydraulic fracturing market.
“We’ve proven in the laboratory, that we can effectively treat flowback and produced water,” he says. “Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing is notoriously difficult to treat, but we have proven the viability of our solution, and can dispose of clean water on-site, without having to transport elsewhere.”
The commercial testing is slated to begin by April to complete by end of summer in Alberta, near Calgary.
Pursuing national ambitions
“We’re a technology company experiencing rapid growth,” Honeyman says. “Our intention is to partner ultimately with companies that have deep ties in the infrastructure market already.”
Targeting industrial wastewater in Southern Ontario and the oil and gas sectors in Western Canada, the company has some promising leads.
“We have had discussions with wastewater service providers, such as Terrapure Environmental® with our SDTC project, and engineering solution providers, who are promoting our solution to their existing clients that have relevant pain points.”
As well, the company is tentatively exploring international interests, particularly the Netherlands and India.
The reward of generational returns
Forward Water is optimistic about the incoming profit returns. “The timeframe for water technology adoption is far longer than you would initially expect,” Honeyman says. “According to Bluetech Research, a new water technology has a seven-to-ten year adoption pathway. I think investors and technologists need to be prepared for this long timeframe.”
‘The obverse to that long timeline is, once you enter into that commercial space and have success, you can expect generational returns,” he says. “The reward is that these installations and technologies will be used for decades to come.”
Honeyman also praises WaterTAP’s role in what can be a long valley of uncertainty. “As an unbiased third party, WaterTAP has provided insightful commentary and connectivity throughout our path toward commercialization,” he says “The dots are too easy to connect: Canadian water technology is an economic and innovation powerhouse that meets a global need. WaterTAP can bridge those gaps, and I look forward to getting additional support in the future.”
Josh Chong is a communications coordinator at WaterTAP.
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