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Water and Innovation

Water and Innovation

| On 26, May 2010

Jack Hipple

Do any of you use water in your processes? Why? How much? Most likely it’s to cool something or to dilute something. Clean water is becoming more precious all the time as a Florida resident such as myself can testify. Though we are surrounded by “water”, it’s salty seawater and unusable for drinking or most crop irrigation. In fact, Tampa, FL has just (finally, after a year long struggle) brought on stream the country’s largest water desalinization plant, supplying 10% of our county’s water supply. This water is far more costly than the ground water typically used, but its raw material source is reliable.

Water (fresh water) is not going to become any cheaper. All the inexpensive sources such as dams and lakes are, for the most part, already committed. When a resource, whether it be water, energy, or air, becomes scarce, the processes that rely upon it bvecome very expensive and ultimately unstainable. An interesting book that I purchase every other year or so, Vital Signs,2010, published by the Worldwatch Institute, has a number of very concise graphs and summaries of the world’s resource use. One of these that caught my eye was a table (p44) showing the water required to produce selected foods, in cubic meters of water/ton of foodstuff:

Beef 13,500

Pork 4,800

Poultry 4,100

Soybean 2,750

Eggs 2,700

Rice 1,400

Wheat 1,160

Milk 780

Now, I was aware of some of these discrepancies, but not to the degree that I see here. If we’re in the innovation business, what does this tell us? First, there will be a crying need for more efficient and effective means of desalinating water, treating brackish water, and recycling used water. This will not be easy since fundamental thermodynamics tells us that water wants to be with salt and it will always cost energy to separate the two.

But more importantly, where do these numbers say that we should focus our food research efforts? Soybeans and eggs are both sources of protein, just like beef, but use 1/5 as much water. The opportunity to make these foodstuffs more palatable to meat eaters is clear. We have seen some of this over the years in the form of soy burgers.

Right next to this chart is another chart showing the water consumption by various energy types:

Solar .0001

Wind .0001

Gas 1.0

Coal 2.0

Nuclear 2.5

Oil 4.0

Hydropower 68

Biofuels (current) 178

More interesting data. Wind and solar have continuity and power density limitations and hydropower is limited by natural locations (and is for the most part already used), but the driving force for natural gas is very clear as well as the tremendous incentive to increase the power density of solar power. Processes that use energy that is both readily available and not as highly dependent upon water as a resource to make and use will have a natural long term advantage.

It’s amazing what two simple charts can tell us about where to focus our innovation energy in the water and energy areas.

Comments are welcome!