Test your water
As some West Virginia residents continue to await confirmation about whether their tapwater is safe to drink, new technology is being developed that might one day dramatically cut down the time it takes to bring water supplies back online during such disasters.
“In this day and age when you can send a tweet from a shower, the ability to get immediate information is just essential,” said Mark Peterman, the president and co-founder of rapid water testing startup Ondavia, one of 12 companies named a finalist in Imagine H2O’s annual global competition for water startups two days before the massive chemical spill affecting West Virginia. “These are issues that affect human health.”
Water is also an increasingly prevalent business concern. In its 2013 US Water Report, the Carbon Disclosure Project found that nearly half of the S&P 500 companies who responded said they have experienced water-related costs. Some reported costs of up to $400m, and projected those costs could one day reach as much as $1bn, according to the study.
Although many companies listed “water scarcity” as their biggest concern, the number of businesses who said water quality was a “substantive business risk” grew considerably over 2012, with 31% more respondents listing it as a risk for their direct operations and 69% more naming it a risk for their supply chain. Stable water quality is crucial especially to the US’s booming natural gas industry, the CDP report said.
OndaVia, which already counts oil and gas companies as well as environmental remediation firms among its customers, entered the competition to reach potential clients in agriculture and food and beverage processing. OndaVia wants to expand the range of customers who might benefit from its portable detection equipment, which allows users to deploy interchangeable cartridges to test for a variety of contaminants in the field, instead of lengthy lab tests that can delay solutions. Winners will be announced in mid-March.
“Unless you’re willing to pay a very large amount of money to accelerate the testing, it’s going to take a fair amount of time to get results back,” Peterman said.
Here’s how it works: if a farmer wants to test for a particular contaminant, say, perchlorate – a chemical that occurs naturally but is also found in bleach, fertilizers and other products, and may cause thyroid problems – he or she would connect OndaVia’s shoebox-sized reader to a laptop computer, place a drop of water on a cartridge calibrated to test specifically for perchlorate, and plug it into the reader. (Peterman says he hopes the system can be scaled down in the future.) Two to five minutes later, the system generates detailed data about the concentration of perchlorate in the sample.
“It’s that speed of being able to do the testing and get immediate results, and we are also making a system as easy to use as possible so it doesn’t require PhD chemists in the lab doing the analysis and interpreting the results,” Peterman said. “The guy that’s normally out in the field collecting the samples, could be going and getting the results, logging them right there and going on to the next well.”
OndaVia’s testing equipment uses a process known as Raman spectroscopy. The technique illuminates samples with lasers and identifies molecular “fingerprints” based on the spectrum that’s returned. Other enterprises also use Raman spectroscopy to analyze water quality. A team of Dutch researchers, for example, have used it to test for bacteria such as E coli and Legionella.
Peterman wouldn’t discuss details about specific customers, though he said Ondavia works with companies like Nalco, a water treatment services firm (and a division of Ecolab), an oilfield services provider called Schlumberger, and General Electric on a variety of applications.
“I expect the outcome to be some kind of acquisition, just because the capital needed to build up the sales and marketing for something that does dozens or hundreds of different cartridges is rather large,” Peterman said. “There are a lot of different directions it could go.”
Will Sarni, an enterprise water analyst with Deloitte, wrote the executive summary of the CDP report, in which he noted that investors are beginning to identify opportunities among the many risks in the water sector.
“Where there are quantifiable risks, there are business opportunities in new products and services,” Sarni wrote. “These opportunities include investments in new technologies and companies and the development of new business strategies.”
Sarni isn’t familiar with Ondavia specifically, but said real-time information about water could matter to a variety of businesses, such as the mining industry.
“The mining sector can’t select where they mine, so if they’re looking to extract ore in a water-scarce or stressed region, they have to think about being very efficient with respect to water or ensure that they have desalination equipment.”
Ondavia’s selection as a finalist follows a two-year, $450,000 award from the US Agriculture Department last fall that will fund the company’s development of cartridges to test for boron, a mineral that can be toxic to crops.
Whether or not OndaVia wins the Imagine H2O competition, the company will evaluate its business strategy. Peterman says the contest is providing key feedback about which key contaminants farmers and food processors want identified most.
“We can only swing the bat so many times as a startup, so let’s hit a good pitch and pick the right contaminant,” Peterman said.
So far, though, the product isn’t approved by regulators to use for official compliance, so the company is doubling down on its process controls. Peterman believes OndaVia can help prevent refineries from expensive shutdowns before a corrosive chemical reaches crisis limits, or provide information about pesticides and herbicides being washed off crops so farmers can make adjustments in real time.
For now, however, official, slow lab analysis will still be the norm. The science is evolving so fast, Peterman said, that he thinks the future of water testing will look like something out of science fiction.
“[Water testing] is going to reach a point where we’re going to end up with a tricorder and Spock’s going to be able to go out and wave it over the water and get a list of everything that’s present,” Peterman said. “We’ll get there. We’ll get there with one technology or another, but we’re headed that direction and we’re headed there fast.”