Water. We can’t live without it, and you can’t run a food or beverage plant without it. However, having it available for all earth’s inhabitants worldwide in the next 20 to 30 years will be a challenge—as already two-billion of the planet’s population live in areas where water is scarce. Unsurprisingly, the food and beverage industry is one of the largest water users, so it’s well worthwhile to minimize waste wherever possible. Water treatment companies are only too aware of the importance of conserving this precious resource, which in some areas can be more valuable than oil.

There are several water treatment companies worldwide, which can help food and beverage processors find ways to conserve water—whether incoming (influent) ingredient or effluent. Kurita America Inc. is one example that has pulled together experts in water treatment and conservation—and can help processors prepare for water issues down the road.

Kurita Water Industries (Kurita), a major global supplier of water treatment products and services (6700 employed worldwide) based in Nakano-ku, Japan, recently consolidated its subsidiaries in the United States, including U.S. Water Services, Inc., Texas-based, Kurita America Inc., and Fremont Industries, LLC. The newly combined company is known simply as Kurita America Inc., and is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. LaMarr Barnes, former CEO of U.S. Water, leads Kurita America Inc. as chief executive officer.

Kevin Milici, Kurita America’s EVP for marketing and technology Brett Robison, director of strategic corporate business
(left) Kevin Milici, Kurita America’s EVP for marketing and technology, and (right) Brett Robison, director of strategic corporate business

I recently spoke with Kevin Milici, Kurita America’s EVP for marketing and technology, and Brett Robison, director of strategic corporate business, who is focused on the food and beverage industry. We talked about Kurita and its product and service offerings plus some issues and solutions that are relevant to food and beverage processors.

Water shortages everywhere

Where I live, there has hardly ever been a real water shortage in my lifetime, though we had a scare one summer on the farm when I was a kid. But that drought experience was short-lived and pales in comparison to what much of the world—and even in parts of the U.S.— is facing today. Not known for water scarcity, parts of Georgia suffered major water shortages in 2007, causing beverage companies to rethink their facilities. Parts of California and the Southwest continue to face shortages.

“About 50% of the world’s population is anticipated to become in water scarce mode by 2050,” says Kurita’s Kevin Milici. That’s a big deal. The estimates are that there will a global shortage of fresh water or a 40% shortfall within a decade from now. Those are the red flags that are going up around the globe, says Milici. Even Florida has had problems with salty water mixing with fresh ground water and seeping inland, which is known for creating sinkholes when it permeates fragile limestone under the surface.

In the Southwest, California recently had a crisis and Milici says that Kurita’s customers were being asked to cut their water consumption by 20-25%, which alleviated the shortage somewhat, however, due to more rains and snow in the mountains the shortages have temporarily disappeared, but most likely will reappear as weather tends to be cyclical.

Site water issues

Whether you are already located on a site with water issues or are looking for a new site, which is hopefully free and clear of water problems, Kurita can work with A&E firms to design water treatment systems for a potential site, and it an also work with processors to solve any problems with water that is intended be used as an ingredient.

“We have a strong engineering and equipment team that does work directly on greenfield projects with A&E firms,” says Kurita’s Brett Robison. “While we don’t go out and do geological surveys, certainly our customers have gotten savvy enough to take a look at water impact—both cost and availability.”

“We can look at the water source, the water quality and do some modeling,” adds Robison. Some sites may have city, ground and surface water. “We look at the cost and availability, and we can do modeling to say yes, you can use this water; you can invest in equipment/technology to clean it. We can provide guidance in terms of modeling—not just on the water quantity and availability and cost of that water, but on the quality side—how it’s going to impact an operation.”

For processors who may have tapped the well beyond its limit, it may be possible to find a new source of water, but Robison also says it may be time to find a way to reduce the water that’s being used. This is where a water company can make some recommendations on setting strategies for “water reduction, reuse and recycle,” as he says.

Robison points out a processor in Wisconsin that was running out of ground water since they expanded to increase production capacity. Kurita began a 10-week project to look for areas to cut water usage. After 10 weeks, the processor targeted ways to reduce water usage by 20%. After some more digging Kurita was able to improve on that number, reducing water usage by 30%.

Milici also points out that Kurita has the right tools to help a processor “see around the corner.” He defines this as looking at a given area’s water availability, its projected demand  by nearby neighbors and climate effects; and  model the challenge that water might present in the future under different scenarios of deteriorating quality over time.

Another source of water today—and more processors are taking advantage of it—is cleaning up wastewater enough that it can find use at the plant before sending it off to the POTW (publicly owned treatment works). In fact, just cleaning water before it goes off to the POTW may be a cost-effective method of reducing additional POTW expenses for high strength wastewater.

“Waste streams that most people historically would have thought as impaired and unusable, are actually falling into the waste to value category, where with technology we can take those streams and reuse them, so effectively another new source of water is being enabled,” says Milici.

Divert water from the POTW

Fortunately chemistry and technology today has made things possible not foreseen some years ago. Milici describes a particular novel “reuse of water.” “Let’s take a beverage plant, and they have an RO (reverse osmosis) machine to make high-quality water that they use as ingredient water.” While the RO process produces good ingredient water, it also produces brine as a waste product. Typically, that brine would go down the drain to a POTW or the plant’s wastewater plant if it has one. Maybe that plant also has several cooling towers, and those cooling towers are consuming fresh water as makeup, and the blowdown from those towers is also winding up as a waste stream going to sewer. So maybe the facility would like to minimize the volume of discharge and/or minimize the consumption of fresh water if it becomes either a scarcity issue or in a lot of cases, the price point of water around the country is just escalating unbelievably, says Milici.

So what to do? Milici shows what can be done with modern technology. “In a situation like that, our technology could be applied. First of all, we produce the RO machine and all the engineering associated with that, but instead of taking the brine output and sending it to the sewer, we can take that brine, and when treated properly, it becomes a source—and often the primary source—of makeup to the cooling tower.

“Well, you say, how can I use brine in lieu of fresh water makeup?” Milici says, “Well, because the chemical technology has evolved such that it has the ability to deal with the stresses imposed by using a water like that. And then, you lay on top of that—advances in automation and control, the IoT—so the ability to be able to monitor that system very closely and nip issues that could be serious problems in the bud before they ever [become a problem]. So the surveillance is there to be able to manage that system much tighter than you may have historically been able to.”

And then the used cooling tower water doesn’t have to go to the POTW at all. Milici describes what can be done to head off sending the cooling tower water to the POTW. The cooling tower blowdown water can be reclaimed at its source such that it never goes to the wastewater plant.

Rather, it goes through a Kurita packaged system that involves technology such as ultrafiltration and RO. “We take that blowdown water, and we wind up cleaning it right there in situ—if you will, and it cycles back to the front end of the cooling tower as its own makeup,” says Milici. “So this is just an example of how all these solutions can come together. There are often an economic balancing and considerations that go on to show what solutions are the best in terms of the total cost of operation, but it’s just amazing how advances in technology enable us to do things that were never contemplated in the past.”

Water: Key ingredient to beverages

Water, hops, barley and/or wheat and yeast are key ingredients to beer. But, why does Heineken always taste Heineken? asks Robison. “Heineken tastes like Heineken because it was made in the same place in The Netherlands for centuries,” answers Robison. And that means consistent ingredients—especially water.

Today macro- and microbreweries are popping up everywhere, and while their brewmasters know the finer points about recipes, they don’t often understand the importance of water, says Robison. Brewers know they have to control their high-strength wastewater, but mastering the subtleties of water as an ingredient often eludes them.

Brewing beer is a challenge for several reasons, and water quality shouldn’t be one of them. “You can’t get into the market if you’re not making 10, 15 or 20 or seasonal beers,” says Robison. “The problem is that a pilsner vs. a stout vs. a kolsch or whatever has a very different water profile.” So most breweries that know about water quality are going with the model to make the water pure—strip it of everything (though not distilling it)—and put back in it the elements or minerals that complement a particular beer recipe.

“You can get as sophisticated as you want,” says Robison. “We’ve seen beverage processors utilizing filtration and reverse osmosis to remove 98% of their incoming water elements then utilize a PLC-based system that applies the optimum amount of calcium, alkalinity or whatever components they want in the water—push a button and they get those elements in the appropriate quantity into their water to make the desired recipe. It’s all about how much do you want to invest and how sophisticated you want control of your most important ingredient.”

However, a serious brewer isn’t likely to call the local water softener firm. As Milici points out, an experienced water firm knows how to handle ingredient water and make it perfect for the application—whether beer or soda or something else—and it can help a processor repurpose water before it leaves the plant. But a full service water firm can also help the manufacturer get control of its wastewater so the effluent leaving the plant’s premises is what the POTW expects—and that keeps costs under control.

For more information, visit Kurita America at https://www.kuritaamerica.com.