Mechanical engineer Ben Sparrow had been trying for years to generate usable energy from the interaction between fresh and salt water. Moving salts from one to the other creates a flow of electricity, and figuring out how to harness this phenomenon became a passion project for him. But he discovered something entirely different. “What fell out of his independent experimenting was a more energy-efficient way to get the salt out of the water,” says Joshua Zoshi, who co-founded Saltworks Technologies with Sparrow in 2008.
Sparrow’s discovery proved to be tremendously useful for resource companies who have a growing need to purify really challenging waste water contaminated by salts, hydrocarbons, metals and other chemicals. Resource producers face reduced access to fresh water and, in some places, rules requiring zero discharge of liquid waste, meaning they have to recycle every drop. Estimates put capital expenditures on industrial waste water treatment in the tens of billions per year over the coming decade.
Resource companies have seized on Saltworks’ technologies, partly because they can handle high-salinity water, and because they can recover marketable contaminants, such as bitumen. “It’s a technology that wouldn’t be terribly expensive for our company and other companies in our sector to be able to deploy and ultimately create some nice, clean water out of some nasty industrial water,” says Juan Benitez, a senior specialist with oilsands producer Cenovus Energy’s venture capital fund. (Along with BP, ConocoPhillips and Teck Resources, the fund invested in Saltworks.)
Since 2014, the company has deployed two distinct technologies in pilot projects in North America and Australia. The first is ElectroChem, which Zoshi describes as a Ferrari. It’s elegant and fast, passing water over an impermeable ion exchange membrane; in the presence of an electric field, the salts exit the water through the membrane. But as with a Ferrari, you wouldn’t want to take ElectroChem over a speed bump.
“There are some very impaired waters that are simply incompatible with membranes, and that’s where the SaltMaker comes in,” says Zoshi, Saltworks’ president and chief operating officer (Sparrow serves as CEO). This beast of a machine, as big as a shipping container, uses a closed loop of evaporation and condensation to turn contaminated water into distilled-quality H2O. It can then be reused in the industrial process, or returned to the water supply.
It’s even used to supply work camps. Though regulations typically prohibit it, Zoshi adds, “[the water] could be clean enough for drinking.”
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