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Aqua Membranes makes splash with 3-D Printed Membrane Spacer


Craig Beckman

Chief Executive Officer


Aqua Membranes

www.aquamembranes.com


Contact:

Craig Beckman

952-423-8085

craig@aquamembranes.com


Interview conducted by:

Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor, CEOCFO Magazine, Published – November 11, 2019


CEOCFO: Mr. Beckman, what is the concept behind Aqua Membranes?

Mr. Beckman: Aqua Membranes is technology used in the manufacturing of reverse osmosis membrane elements. Our patented technology is used to purify water in a variety of different applications. For example, many consumers use water treatment in their homes with an under their sink unit that utilizes reverse osmosis technology. RO is also used to desalt seawater in the Middle East to make drinking water, and big industrial customers like Intel and Pfizer use reverse osmosis to make semiconductors and pharmaceuticals. It is the most common technology for high-purity water applications, or anywhere you want ultrapure water with salt and minerals removed. We manufacture all those membrane elements, but we do it a slightly different way.


CEOCFO: Would you tell us about the standard way and the Aqua Membranes method?

Mr. Beckman: Reverse Osmosis elements were developed in conjunction with the US Government about fifty years ago. The process utilizes a thin film membrane very similar to the natural process of osmosis that sucks water into things— but here you are using pressure to push water through a membrane and the water passes but the salt does not —hence the name reverse osmosis. The actual element that does the separation has been designed the same way since its founding fifty years ago. Traditional element construction uses a spacer or material laid between the layers of membranes and the whole thing is rolled up somewhat like a roll of paper towels. That is then put in a pressure vessel, it puts pressure on the membrane and the water goes through and salt does not.


It is important to note that we do not make the actual reverse osmosis membrane; we are using standard membrane sheet that is available in the market today. What we are changing is one part of the construction that involves the area where the water flows. Instead of a standard mesh material between the layers of membrane material, we use a 3-D printing process to print a polymer directly on the surface of the membrane.  It appears like brail or dome protrusions on the membrane, and then that becomes the separator (channel?) It sounds like a very minor change to somebody that’s not familiar with the technology but it actually impacts the process dramatically, bringing improvements in multiple areas.


CEOCFO: Why?

Mr. Beckman: We can make the spacer thinner, which directly affects how much active surface area you can get in each membrane element. For example, in today’s market if you are buying a reverse osmosis standard unit for your home it will have a mesh material that is 28 mils or 28 thousands of an inch thick, and that actually dictates how much water flow you can produce from under your sink. We make the same RO element, but our spacer is thinner. We can go all the way down to six mils from 28 mils, which dramatically increases the packing density of the actual membrane during the filtration, equaling savings of space and money. Saving space means if you have a system under your sink that produces 200 gallons a day of water, with our element in that same size housing we could produce anywhere from 600-800 gallons a day of water depending on how much pressure you are putting on it. In that same footprint under your sink, or in Asia interestingly they put their water systems on the counter, you can get a lot more flow so that is more for the consumer.


On the industrial side, it is the same thing; if Intel requires a 100x100 sq. ft. room for their water treatment plant because of the efficiency in the packing density of the current systems, if we increase that by 50%, their water room decreases by 50%. It is less square footage in the building, less land, less housings, and less piping etc. which creates financial savings for them on their whole water treatment system. That is one benefit we bring to the market with a 3-D printed spacer material instead of the traditional mesh. When it is thinner it improves the efficiency of the whole process.


A second interesting option we have with our 3-D Printed Spacer Technology™ is that we can customize the spacers however we want. We can make them thicker, thinner, domed, triangular, square, or we can make the pattern very dense or open. If we made the pattern very open, it actually increases the life of the membrane.  In the home market most elements last between one and two years before they are fouled up with solid mineral scale material. That scale material tends to get caught in the mesh spacer because the geometry of the spacer easily catches solids in the space because it’s very much like chicken wire. Our design is simply little dots or domes, (think of bales of hay on an open field in miniature form) so the flow path through that design is much more open than the cross-over mesh that is used today. Because we make the flow path more open, solids build up more slowly and you get increased life out of the element.


Additionally, we have just begun our extended lifecycle testing. We think we can get perhaps 50% more life out of an element before they need to throw it away because our spacer pattern is better at preventing scaling.










CEOCFO: Are people in the various segments you serve looking for something better or is it more that they are excited to find out it exists?

Mr. Beckman: It is probably a little bit of both. Reverse osmosis technology has always been considered the premiere choice, but the expensive choice. A number of customers and consumers might choose a traditional carbon filter for example because the carbon filter was cheaper, smaller, easier to install, and they did not want to go all the way up to reverse osmosis because it was expensive and they had to keep buying the expensive replacement elements every year. By improving the process and increasing its life, we are bringing that technology within reach for more consumers.


It is the same thing on the industrial front; if you are in the city of Omaha, you might be looking at reverse osmosis as technology for your city water treatment, but maybe it was too expensive or too inefficient so you chose a different technology that maybe wasn’t as good. As we are now learning, the water supply in the US varies dramatically and can contain trace amounts of harmful materials that we do not know about. If we have the ability to move both consumers, cities and industries to higher quality technology at a lower price point, that will provide a huge advantage.


In general, everybody wants reverse osmosis because they know it is the best, but they’re limited by cost.  Our technology allows them to consider it, which is exciting for both consumers or industrial customers that are already using the process.  Often the process is cost prohibitive because the membrane elements have a finite life and are very expensive to replace. For example, a beverage company or a semiconductor company where the membranes last a couple of years in those applications can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace at the plant level. If we extend the membrane replacement time span by even a year it lowers their total cost to produce the water to make their products.


CEOCFO: With so much opportunity, where do you focus your efforts?

Mr. Beckman: We are a relatively new company. We have been developing the technology for about five years now and just in the last six months introduced our first commercial product targeted towards the food and beverage industry. Most consumers probably don’t know it but almost every packaged drink they consume has likely been treated with reverse osmosis. Beverages like Mountain Dew, Diet Coke, or a bottle of purified water, most often use water treated with reverse osmosis. Additionally, Starbucks use reverse osmosis to make the water for their drinks. RO technology impacts consumers everyday even if they don’t know it. We will focus on the food and beverage space first, including packaged products like Nestle water and Coca Cola, and also Starbucks and Caribou who use onsite water treatment for products consumed at the site, not bottled and put into a package.


Second, we have a partnership with a company in Minneapolis called Pentair, which is a publicly traded company and who has already made an investment in our company, which is on public record. We are partnering with them in one of their segments to integrate one of our technologies into one of their products. Not only will Aqua Membranes have its own product in the market, but we also have decided to partner to try to increase our penetration more quickly with a big global player like Pentair.


CEOCFO: How do you standout, at a conference like WEFTEC, where there are so many ideas related to your industry?

Mr. Beckman: It’s challenging. We are a small player in a big market. We estimated the annual spend on this type of technology to be between $3 and $4 billion, so it’s hard to compete, but we are at the WEFTEC show trying to be creative with our booth.  


We offer some unique solutions, like an application that works better for cold water sites.  A lot of industrial customers that run surface water into their plant have a problem with keeping up in the winter months. So we found a solution and then we created an iceberg like one you’d see in a play or production for our booth to try to attract attention to our unique solution for these customers. That along with newsletters, advertisements before the show and giveaways at WEFTEC brought great traffic to the booth, which allowed us to make a bigger splash in a large segment of the industry.


CEOCFO: How is 3-D printing changed so that it is feasible for you to use?  Do you see more changes in that area?

Mr. Beckman: Yes, a lot of people talk about 3-D printing changing a lot of technologies by offering flexibility. In our case specifically the mesh material that we are replacing has been used by everybody because it was cost-effective to make and there were a couple big manufacturers located at a central location delivering high-volume, which drove down the cost.


Like many other examples, 3-D printing allows you to decentralize that manufacturing so instead of going to one place and making everything, now you can have that part fabricated in many different locations and it is still cost-effective. That was the biggest issue. For example, if you made a hundred thousand wheel hubs in a day, you could get very cost-effective and that is why there is centralized manufacturing. Now 3-D printing allows you to make that same part decentralized. The improvement in the printers, resins, polymers and raw material have gone down so much in price that it has moved into an area where people can afford to do it. The other benefit we see is that the 3-D printing gives you flexibility you don’t get in some other manufacturing processes.


In the mesh material we are replacing the process is limited by the geometries, thickness, speed, and materials you can use because it has to go through an extruder to be made. We do not have that problem. We can literally put drops of polymer in any location, at any thickness, and any height or geometry because we are putting tiny drops down and extruding the liquid material through a die. The 3-D printing brings us flexibility that wasn’t available until maybe five or six years ago.


CEOCFO: You have been CEO  at Aqua Membranes for two years;  what surprised you as the company has grown and evolved to where it is today?

Mr. Beckman: I would say the challenge to overcome problems that we didn’t expect. We are putting our technology into another finished product and what we found is that even though we can effectively put the resin and polymer down in the membrane, the membrane element still has to be constructed and then that element has to be put in a system.


Downstream we have had to change and solve some problems that have nothing to do with 3-D printing. For example, we’ve had to modify the adhesive, or glue, that’s used when the membrane element is rolled up like a paper towel, so it works more effectively with a different type of spacer material. Some of the lessons we have learned are beyond the Printed Spacer Technology™ innovation, but we were still forced to change or tweak the broader processes in a pulse system. This brings challenge and reward. Our team loves to overcome problems and the more we learn and the more we overcome, the better we get at it.


CEOCFO: You mentioned some investment from Pentair; are you seeking additional funding or partnerships as you move forward?

Mr. Beckman: We are a small company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is a very big global market and this product is used all over the world in hundreds of different applications. We understand we are not going to be able to apply all of those directly. Therefore, partnerships are needed, whether it is home systems in China or wastewater reuse systems in Eastern Europe, we are interested in companies that are already connected with customers. We are also looking to industrial facilities or consumer companies that are producing a product today who would look to our technology as a means to differentiate their product, in which case we both win. Those types of partnerships would allow us to grow faster and get the technology into the consumer and industrial markets quicker.


CEOCFO: Why is Aqua Membranes an important company?

Mr. Beckman: Aqua Membranes offers several benefits.  First, we are opening up the highest quality water treatment to more industries and consumers while reducing the waste associated with membrane life because our elements last longer. Ultimately, this means less plastic going in the landfills and more efficient water use globally. Additionally, our technology enables purified water production with significantly less water wasted down the drain.  And for potential corporate partners the differentiation we offer in a highly competitive industry is unparalleled.



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“Aqua Membranes offers several benefits. First, we are opening up the highest quality water treatment to more industries and consumers while reducing the waste associated with membrane life because our elements last longer. Ultimately, this means less plastic going in the landfills and more efficient water use globally. Additionally, our technology enables purified water production with significantly less water wasted down the drain. And for potential corporate partners the differentiation we offer in a highly competitive industry is unparalleled.”- Craig Beckman

“Aqua Membranes offers several benefits. First, we are opening up the highest quality water treatment to more industries and consumers while reducing the waste associated with membrane life because our elements last longer. Ultimately, this means less plastic going in the landfills and more efficient water use globally. Additionally, our technology enables purified water production with significantly less water wasted down the drain. And for potential corporate partners the differentiation we offer in a highly competitive industry is unparalleled.”- Craig Beckman

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