Daily Planet

Meet the Dutch start-up breaking ground in decarbonising desalination

Sid Vollebregt (left) and Reinoud Feenstra, founders of Elemental Water Makers

There is increasing awareness that to meet climate targets and balance the needs of the energy-water-food nexus, desalination — one of the world’s crucial technologies to cope with drought — must decarbonise. One of the biggest challenges for those working in the field is that desalination technologies depend on a constant power supply, while renewable sources are often intermittent.

Dutch start-up Elemental Water Makers is one of a number of firms exploring how to deal with these issues. Its zero-carbon approach using renewable power, a pump and gravity to provide the pressure needed for reverse osmosis, has earned the start-up first prize in the prestigious Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Water Award — a $1 million (€0.9 million) prize to encourage sustainable and innovative solutions to address water scarcity using solar power. 

Daily Planet caught up with founder Sid Vollebregt to find out more.

How does your technology work?

Desalination is a solution for places that have no fresh water. It’s mostly reverse osmosis, which has been used for over 50 years. But reverse osmosis is still energy intensive, and if the energy is expensive, of course the water becomes expensive. In this technology, pressurised seawater is pushed through a membrane. Only the water molecules push through, and all the bacteria, viruses and salts leave the membrane through a separate flow. 

We identified the biggest barrier to renewable energy being used for this process is its fluctuating nature. If the power fluctuates, you can’t guarantee the water quality, and you can only make use of the limited water production capacity. If you only produce eight hours instead of 24 hours, there’s the issue of bio-fouling — the growth of organisms inside the membranes if they stand still — which leads to more frequent membrane replacements, and higher operational costs.

We put a tank on a hill and let gravity provide the pressure for the reverse osmosis. We have a mechanical process to re-use energy in the brine to reduce the elevation by 80 per cent. This allows us to produce water 24 hours a day using only solar energy, if we have 100 metres of elevation close by.

How did you get interested in desalination?

As surfers, we’ve visited many coastal regions worldwide. In Madagascar, we saw people forced to drink brackish water, which isn’t potable, but there was no alternative. At the same time, the sea and sun are both abundant there. It hit me that desalination and renewable energy from solar and wind should be the solution for water scarcity.

Six years ago, together with my co-founder, Reinoud Feenstra, we did a graduation project at TU Delft, where we looked at desalination and renewable energy. We came up with a new innovation, which we then tested in pilots in Indonesia. With such promising results, we decided to start Elemental Water Makers five years ago.

You were supported by Climate-KIC in the beginning. What’s been your journey up until now?

We were very happy to get on to Climate-KIC’s Accelerator programme. As a graduate engineers, we have many skills from the academic world but not the finance, sales, customer development, or business model. With Climate-KIC, we received master classes and coaching, which allowed us to make the next steps — to talk to customers, develop our business plan and sign our first customer.. It really helped us the first few years. We now have projects across Cape Verde, Virgin Islands, Belize, and Mozambique.

A year ago the Sheikh of Dubai launched the Global Water Award for mature solutions for desalination and renewable energy. This year, we were among the three winners, and received first prize in the Innovative Projects Award for commercial projects that have already been operational for one year.

What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced while scaling up?

The sale-cycle timing is a big challenge for us. For instance, we want to be there when there’s a new resort being built. But often you find out the plans are already approved and the [water] solution is already there. You have to invest in relations with architects, with developers, who need to believe in your product. You must have a customer in the area that can help you showcase your product so that the next time they propose a project they will use your technology. It might be two or three years before they have all the environmental impact assessments done. You can imagine the cycle involves effort, patience and perseverance.

Also, the investment needed is higher than conventional solutions. After ten or 15 years, the water costs will be lower, but you’re bound by the liquidity of your end user. A resort might not have €300,000 available for a new water system because they’d prefer to spend it on a new lobby or advertising.

Because of this, we’re moving towards a [water purchase business model] where we bring the technology and the money, but the client pays for the water. It saves them directly on their costs of water; it totally avoids all the emissions involved with desalination, which are huge. It provides jobs, it provides innovation and clean tech, and education for universities around them. It’s a huge win.

What’s been key to your success so far?

Really believing in what we do. The water sector is risk averse, and dominated by large players who have concessions on islands. It’s difficult in terms of regulation and doing business on islands. We really believe in our solution and the necessity for it, and I think because of our belief and perseverance, we’ve made it is this far.

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