At ACerS’ 2010 Ceramic Leadership Summit, one Lux Research analyst implored the materials research and business community to pay attention to the opportunities emerging in the United States (and to some extent in Europe) in the areas of municipal water and sewage treatment. She advised that we needed to spend time talking to managers who are trying to provide safe drinking water, dispose of wastes safely and comply with growing state and federal environmental regulations.
Along these lines, Lux just published a new research report, “Patching Water Infrastructure Where it Leaks Money,” which starts to identify the scale and scope of possible markets and applications.
The basic plot line of this story isn’t new: The infrastructure in the U.S. is old and has been largely neglected. This is especially true in water and sewage systems where different generations of materials, ad-hoc repairs and unplanned growth have, at best, left Frankenstein-like underground systems. Leaks are an increasing problem, wasting precious resources and creating pressure and delivery problems for water. Leaking storm water and sewage systems have their own set of problems, including ground water and river contamination and the threat of EPA intervention and fines.
While the situation in the U.S. is acute, similar problems exist everywhere. Lux pegs the size of the world’s current annual market for inspection and repair technologies of water systems is nearly $20 billion and growing at a 10 percent rate.
Roughly speaking, Lux divides the opportunities into two categories: Pipe repair solutions and monitoring solutions.
Pipe repair, at first glance, seems straight forward, but Lux senior researcher Brent Giles is unexcited about this sector, saying there is little technical innovation and that a few big players who use tried-and-true approaches (e.g., digging up old pipe, remote spray coating, “pipe-bursting” and “cure-in-place”). Giles, tells me that pipe repair “is one area where there are few new patentable technologies and the patents for the old ones have expired.”
I don’t know if our cements and buildings materials experts agree with Giles regarding pipe repair innovation, but he makes a compelling argument about why the big money is in monitoring solutions for water and waste systems. The analogy he draws is to Smart Grid technology that is enabling utilities to monitor their systems in real time, and to target resources and repairs where they are most needed.
According to Giles, water/waste managers likewise need to benefit from advances in information technologies. They need realtime and detailed monitoring of the water infrastructure, which can also alert them to a range of problems, including storm surges, contaminant dumping, etc.
In a Lux news release, Giles, who authored the report, says software and sensor technologies can provide a dynamic picture of a water utility’s entire infrastructure. “Without this holistic view, utilities cannot prioritize the most critical repairs – and may end up throwing money down the drain to address the leaks that are visible today rather than the ones that could prove catastrophic tomorrow,” he says.
Giles says, however, to think beyond “Smart Water Meters” (which may only be a about 20 percent of the total market). He thinks that there are new opportunities in leak and chemical detectors, underground mapping systems (such as LIDAR), algorithmic event predictors and systems for processing and responding to Smart Meter data.
He says some managers are already aggressively remapping pipe infrastructure to correct errors and fill in missing records. Their goal is to own three-dimensional maps that show exactly where the pipe is. The next step will be to start placing detectors and dynamic meters and simultaneously begin to create event models.