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Water Quality--Front and Center

Aug. 16, 2004
Around the Loop: How Does One Measure Water Quality? Some Big Name Players Are Gearing Up to Help Out
The business of supplying potable water has always been a rather conservative enterprise: stable and profitable, but no stock-market high-flyer with high-technology multiples. Currently in the U.S., more than 50,000 water supply systems serve most of the population. Over 800 of these systems serve a population of 50,000 or more. That leaves almost 93% of U.S. municipal water systems serving populations of less than 10,000. Many homeowners, farmers and other water users, of course, are served by dedicated wells and are not part of a regional water supply system. If supplying air was a business, the water supply business would rank right behind it in the human life-support pecking order.
In present day America, however, to coin a phrase: this is not your father's water market. American consumers, those astute purchasers who are outraged when gasoline crosses $2/gal., eagerly pay $8/gal. or more for branded bottled, water. Why? Good question. There is precious little evidence that bottled water has any health advantage over municipal water.Nevertheless, water supply has emerged as a hot growth sector. Two technology powerhouses, GE and Siemens, have both recently concluded acquisitions positioning themselves to participate in the growth of the "water market." Both companies are generally keen observers of emergent markets and their judgment should not be dismissed lightly.
 "Currently in the U.S., more than 50,000 water supply systems serve most of the population."
Measuring water quality is extravagantly multi-dimensional. Modern analytical instrumentation is a wonder. We can measure, in exacting detail, things we never knew we had. Once measured, they become the subject of scientific concern, only a short step from regulation. A bureaucrat with an analytical instrument is the world’s most dangerous person. A pH of 7 may seem good enough for engineers but our intrepid regulators always prefer numbers closer to zero.Total organic carbon (TOC) content is a broad-based measure of water quality indicating the sum total of dissolved organic species. This measure, and the technology for determining it, was developed by Dow Chemical in the 1960s and subsequently licensed to Beckman Instruments.With an uncertain market and without a steady stream of investment to renew and refine the technology, TOC instrumentation remained bulky and expensive. In the 1970s, a group of environmentally-minded young engineers bankrolled by Binx Selby (inventor of an early electronic typewriter) organized Pure Cycle Corporation, a new business venture to provide totally recycled water for household use. Given that Colorado is a state with a growing population and limited water resources, water recycling makes perfect economic sense. This conjunction of need and technology investment helps to explain why Colorado became the Silicon Valley of TOC instrumentation.At its peak in the early 1980s, 30 Boulder-area families were using Pure Cycle’s single-home complete water recycling system. TOC content indicated how well the water purification cycle was functioning. This parameter had to be determined indirectly as the existing commercial instruments were deemed economically unfit.The business never developed (systems cost about $20,000—approximately half the cost of a typical residence in the area at the time), but the need for better TOC instrumentation survived. Pure Cycle alumni founded a number of prominent TOC suppliers. These instruments are now widely used in monitoring industrial wastewater streams, potable water purification systems and ultrapure water for nuclear power generation, pharmaceutical and semiconductor component manufacturing. Semiconductor process water specifications in Japan and Taiwan call for TOC levels down to a few hundred parts per trillion. The U.S. EPA’s Disinfection By-Products Rule (DBPR) requires that chlorinated organics in U.S. domestic water be monitored at a very low levels as well.With all this attention focussed on water quality, we may be missing an even bigger opportunity in bottled, brand air. Imagine your local convenience store stocked with Greenland Glacier Fresh Air and oxygen-enriched Amazon Delta Air. Entrepreneurs take notice.Terrence K. McMahon McMahon Technology Associates135 Fort Lee RoadLeonia, NJ  07605Tel: 201/585-2050Fax: 201/585-1968[email protected]

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