Have you ever heard of ‘KAITEKI’? This is the original concept of our company, Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Corporation (MCHC), to promote our business activities. KAITEKI is a Japanese word that conventionally means ‘comfortable’ or ‘pleasant’ for which is no exact English equivalent. It’s a ward that is closely associated with state of well-being, symbiosis, and harmony. We express a sustainable condition which is comfortable not only for people, but also for society and the Earth by the word ‘KAITEKI’. MCHC is aiming to realize KAITEKI by solving issues in various fields including living, information & electronics, medical care, environment, and energy as an integrated chemical company whose business domains include Performance Products, Health Care and Industrial Materials. And I believe the key to ‘KAITEKI’ is breakthrough innovation in chemical and material science, which is where Pangaea focuses.
We can approach to realize KAITEKI from any of the elements which constitute the world, but what comes to my mind first is WATER. Water is essential for human life, and it is a limited resource on the Earth. That’s why the water industry is now one of the biggest, and related technologies have been developed in parallel with the growth of the water industry. The water industry market size is around $50-60B now, and expected to reach $1 trillion in 2025, according to ‘Green Tech Made in Germany 3.0’. The majority (approx. 60%) of market is in ‘business operation’ areas, such as water and sewerage system operation; so-called ‘water making’, where advanced materials play an important role, is relatively small now. However, ‘water making’ is predicted to grow at a high rate with the economic growth of emerging countries, and the increasing demand for fresh water especially in the Middle East, South Asia and the US, where the fresh water supply is going to be tighter.
As stated in Sarah Applebaum’s blog (Material Innovation in the Water Cycle: A Deep Well of Innovation), the main technology of the 'water making' industry is reverse osmosis (RO), and the core of RO is the membrane. RO is getting more and more market share in desalination, the mainstream of which has been distillation for decades. Since the first RO membrane for desalination was pioneered in 1970s, there has been considerable quality improvement and cost reduction of the membranes.
At the same time, Forward Osmosis (FO) is getting a lot of attention as a promising future water making technology. In an RO system, very high energy is required to surpass osmotic pressure for REVERSE Osmosis. But unlike RO, driving force of FO is a purely osmotic pressure gradient, using a "draw" solution of high concentration (compared with that of the feed solution, like seawater) to induce a net flow of WATER through the membrane into the draw solution, thus effectively separating the feed water from its solutes. FO has the advantage of requiring less energy than RO, but still there are several challenges to be overcome for commercialization, such as the difficulty in getting rid of the draw solution perfectly and easily from the product water. For the membrane, the problem in FO is the lack of an optimized membrane that can produce a high water flux, comparable to commercial RO membranes. But I believe the breakthrough of FO will arrive in the near future, because a lot of startups are working to address these issues. We might see the main technology change from the RO process now leading distillation in desalination.
Besides ‘making water’, water treatment has interesting features in and of itself. The required water quality differs according to applications and the quality of resource water, but also by location and even weather; it might contain oil, heavy metals, or radioactive materials. These problems cannot be solved by a single technology or approach. In such a situation, not only membrane systems like RO, FO or Membrane Bioreactor (which is used for wastewater treatment), but also ion exchange technology or filtration systems may be needed. Several technologies must be combined to provide a complete solution, which implies there should be lots of big opportunities for both existing players and new startup companies to collaborate in order to tackle these challenges.
With progress of these cutting-edge water technologies, a greater number of people will be able to enjoy good-quality, inexpensive water, sustainably. Water technologies will directly save the lives of those who do not have access to the good, safe, healthy water today. Also, it will assist in educational opportunities and women's participation in society by helping children and women, who now need to spend considerable time to get water, freeing them to study or work instead. Those same women and children may, in turn, help develop next generation innovations and lead disruptive breakthroughs in chemical and material science. Perhaps the continual innovation of technology can mimic the eternal renewal of nature's water cycle.