Dissecting a Winning Entrepreneurial Pitch: EFD (Early Fouling Detection for Membrane Systems)

This is the final article in my series on How KAUST’s Latest Seed Fund Winners Are Shaping the Future of Saudi Arabia, covering the last of the 4 winning pitches I heard at the December 2013 Seed Fund Gala.

As a recap, the previous 3 articles covered the following teams and topics:

  • Falcon Viz—using 3D scanning and modeling technology to map buildings and important sites
  • Nano Assembly—producing semiconductor particles called quantum dots of high quality at a low price
  • ROFix—adding a step before pre-treatment to predict membrane fouling at water desalination plants

The pitch I am covering today, presented by a team called EFD (Early Fouling Detection for Membrane Systems), also focuses on improving water desalination plants. However, EFD focuses on providing a window into membrane fouling rather than aiming to predict it before the pre-treatment phase. This team has made the first device that can monitor and characterize membrane fouling during the early stages of its occurrence within a reverse osmosis desalination plant.

If you’re not familiar with the technical terms above, don’t worry, because neither was I before writing this article. Keep reading to learn how reverse osmosis desalination and membrane fouling work, along with the benefits of EFD’s fouling detection system.

Image courtesy of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Image courtesy of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

The Problem

More than 90% of the Earth’s water is seawater. According to UNESCO, protecting drinking water will be one of the most challenging problems of the coming decade.

Today, turning seawater into high-quality drinking water is difficult due to membrane fouling. Membrane fouling is a problem that occurs at water desalination plants that use a process called reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis removes small particles, such as sea salt particles, from water by making it pass through a filter called a membrane. The water itself can pass through the membrane, but the particles get trapped on the other side.

However, these particles gradually stick to the membrane itself, taking away its ability to filter water effectively. This is called membrane fouling and is the main cause of shutdowns and poor performance at water desalination plants. Types of membrane fouling including organic fouling (from non-living things), particulate fouling (from small bits of inorganic matter), and biofouling (from living things). All of these types of fouling result in increased maintenance and operational costs.

The Solution

The EFD team has developed a monitoring system that can detect, characterize, and alert plant personnel to fouling at the earliest stages.

How the Product Works

EFD’s system is installed parallel to a desalination plant’s existing equipment, acting as a “window” that allows plant monitors to see what is happening in real time.

The Technology
Within each desalination plant, EFD’s technology is designed to monitor different operational parameters, allowing plant operators to know what is happening on the surface and inside of each membrane.

The team is also developing a database that will store fouling parameters and give information regarding important values to plant operators, letting them know precisely what type of problem they are dealing with as it arises.

Where It Fits into the Market
EFD’s technology can be installed parallel to a desalination plant’s existing equipment, allowing it to fit into any reverse osmosis plant.

Patent Status
Unknown.

Benefits to Saudi Economy
As with ROFix’s project, EFD’s technology may improve the availability of potable water in Saudi Arabia by saving reverse osmosis desalination plants time and money.

Usages

The team’s technology is meant to boost efficiency at reverse osmosis water desalination plants by providing a “window” into the membranes used for filtration, allowing fouling to be caught early.

Features

  • Increases membrane lifetime by 20%
  • Decreases chemical costs by about 30%

Benefits

  • Saves time at desalination plants
  • Saves money at desalination plants
  • Saves desalination plant professionals the headache of frequent shut-downs

Market

Since some desalination plants are owned by corporations and some by the government, EFD will operate in the business-to-business and the business-to-government markets.

Competitive Landscape

Other technologies currently on the market cannot accurately predict membrane fouling, nor can they detect or characterize fouling during its early phases. Therefore, EFD is bringing a new offering to the landscape.

Team

Names and Profiles of Team Members

Credentials
Bucs is a Research Engineer at KAUST. His area of speciality is environmental engineering.

Dr. Hekkert is a professor at KAUST. He has more than 25 years of academic experience related to water desalination. Outside of academic life, he serves as CEO of Sensor Sense, a company that offers laser-based systems for gas measurements.

Dr. Stall is a Research Consultant at KAUST. He has performed years of microbiology-related postdoctoral research at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Delft University of Technology, and the University of Copenhagen.

Timeline

The team expects this project to take two years. In year one, they will focus on product development, bringing their demo unit up to the level of a commercial prototype. Next, to bring this commercial prototype to the level of a commercial product, the team will perform further testing at industrial plants, like KAUST’s Sea Water Reverse Osmosis Potable Water Treatment Plant, and eventually, other desalination plants throughout the area.

The focus will then be on marketing and business development. In the end, if everything goes as planned, EFD will incorporate their company.

Big-Picture Impact on the Saudi Environment

Again, as with the ROFix team’s project, the big impact is helping desalination plants produce drinking water cheaper and quicker than is now possible, improving quality of life for millions of Saudis along the way.

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