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Value of Water Should be Conveyed: Prayas Goel, Director, Rochem

Prayas Goel is the Director at Rochem Separation System (India) Pvt. Ltd.  Rochem and its group companies have been involved in the business of development, manufacturing and installation of wastewater treatment and reuse systems for more than 27 years. The company produces Advanced Membrane Module Technology Based Separation Systems for recovery and reuse of difficult wastewater and aims to be the primary source of effluent recycling, desalination and process separation technologies, and services for industries with difficult-to-handle wastewater streams.

Please tell us about your journey in the water industry. How has been your experience so far?
Prayas: Our journey into this water and wastewater market started from the desalination for off-shore and moved into the wastewater recycling – which we had foreseen 20 years back as being the future. We have been investing slowly and steadily in being able to directly recycle wastewater for industry into the now changing mandate, which you see especially in the coming future will be completely related to the onsite reuse of wastewater to meet your fresh water source.

I started in this field working on wastewater treatment plants and recycle-plants in various parts of the world including India and Europe. As a young mechanical engineer, getting in this field, I gained a lot of experience in recycling applications using membranes. Then I spent a lot of time on the development of membrane-based applications for textile, landfill leachate, sugar and distillery industries and we came up with solutions for meeting these industrial requirements.

It’s been challenging getting the market to commit to wastewater recycling based on their responsibility to ensure that they are committed to the environment.We have done a lot of innovative work, been associated with a lot of early-stage technologies as well and had a fair bit of failures but my belief is that you have to bring the technologies to a scalable level into the market to really test it up and bring it out of the lab.

ZLD has been a hot topic for a few years now. How would you describe it in the context of your technologies?
Prayas: For us, ZLD (Zero Liquid Discharge) started with looking at what we then perceived as a non-biodegradable waste. So, 15-20 years back if the wastewater was treatable – that is bio-degradable – we would treat it biologically and then send it into nature. But, there were the stream or sources of wastewater which were non-biodegradable, and for such non-biodegradable sources then, the only option was that you concentrate them – separate the water out of it and then you concentrate the contaminants and come into a zero liquid discharge kind of environment. That’s how it started off. And what it has evolved into today, I think of wastewater as a source of water. So, you are extracting all of the liquid to use back as a source of water and you end up into what we continue to call as zero liquid discharge. It may have started from pollution and from the environment but today, I don’t think its only environment driven anymore. In most of the markets we are working with now, people are realizing that we are driven by water demand and not driven by the fact that this is a non-biodegradable stream which otherwise we cannot let out to nature and hence we need to make it into zero liquid discharge scenario.

We are also seeing a huge change in the fact that India has a big leadership position in ZLD and if you look at it in the global context, we are easily hundred times ahead in terms of ZLD installations than anywhere else in the world. It’s a great opportunity for Indian technology providers, companies such as ourselves and others to be able to bring this expertise and solutions to other places in the world which are only now starting to realize that their Eco-system is also not able to absorb the impact of the industrialization of the domestic sewage or industrial wastewater.

So, right from North America to Europe to South America or even Africa, we are starting to see that there is a huge growth in the wastewater reuse, whether you call it Zero liquid discharge or minimum liquid discharge.

Is there any difference in reaching to that level of zero liquid discharge when we talk specifically about your technology in terms of cost saving?
Prayas: Specifically in the Indian context, our continued lack of the correct pricing for water is an issue. We do have the situation where the industry looks at it as a non-productive expense to invest in zero liquid discharge because our water is not priced properly. The moment we start pricing our water properly, the scenario will change. But having said that and looking at what we need to do for the situation which is prevailing today, our focus is to look at the second biggest component of zero liquid discharge-OPEX – which is energy. Between 60-80 percent of the cost of zero liquid discharge is energy and our focus has been to bring energy-efficient technologies to zero liquid discharge to be able to bring down the overall cost or increasing your competitiveness of zero liquid discharge. Thus, we have a lot of technologies like high-pressure RO, waste-heat evaporation, combining thermo-evaporation with other sources of waste heat and also combining waste gasification to use organic industrial residues as a source of energy to be able to create heat to provide zero liquid discharge energy. We focus on bringing out a complete solution because you do have a lot of stand-alone solutions which are not well integrated. Especially in terms of energy, the integration is very poor. You have multistage pressure driven processes or multistage steam driven processes which are not integrated well. Sometimes simply by integrating them well, for example, if it is done by a single company instead of by 5-6 service providers along the chain, you can bring in the efficiency and of course new technologies and products to be able to reduce the baseline to as close to the theoretical values for energy consumption as we can.

I was a having discussion with your team about a Steel Project in Tarapur. Please tell us a bit about it.
Prayas: It is a very interesting project. Because it’s an isolated industry which needed to show independence as far as not relying on external discharge. They needed to show the reliability in saying that their operations are not dependent on what happens to the common effluent treatment plant which they are sending their wastewater to, or their operations are not reliant on their source of water which could be MIDC or anything else. They needed to show the reliability of operations to their customers who are following just-in-time production techniques. The crux of the matter was that if their customers are going to rely on them for just-in-time delivery then it was needed to ensure that the business and the operation of the company are not at risk with any external condition with regard to water supply or wastewater supply or power, etc.

They had already realized that they needed to be independent in regard to water. They needed to be independent in regard to wastewater. And then of course, as I said, when zero liquid discharge comes to mind because it’s your source of water, you can reuse it and you are not reliant on them. They had a unique set of challenges. They are not a process industry in the sense that they don’t have a boiler, so you couldn’t go with the conventional steam-based or steam-driven evaporation systems. We were able to come up with a very simple and energy-efficient system to achieve zero liquid discharge without using any live steam whatsoever as they did not want to install a boiler just to meet this requirement. So, we did a 3-stage membrane system followed by a waste-heat evaporator, followed by a dryer, and we were able to convert all the recycled water that their production unit produces and end up with a dry powder as solid residue, which they send to a secured landfill.

It is now in its second year, running very successfully and we are hopeful about repeat expansion of capacity as well.

What are the challenges you face in the execution of projects?
Prayas: The most common challenge is planning. We still see the customers pushing the decision to the last moment and then expecting us to meet unimaginable delivery times. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Either orders get pushed based on when there either is regulatory pressure or budgets are going to expire. We would certainly like to see the industry and our customers to plan things out better, especially in multistage zero liquid discharge systems which could not be completed in 4 or 6 weeks – it does need time for engineering and site development.

Define ‘difficult wastewater’ for our readers. What is the right way to treat it?
Prayas: For us, difficult wastewater is the wastewater which is non-biodegradable. The other thought from our company’s and our products’ perspective is that difficult wastewater is the wastewater which is not easy to treat with the membrane. Membranes have conventionally been used quite successfully for water applications, desalination, drinking water, boiler water, DM water, but in difficult wastewater, conventional membranes have not had a very good rate of success. Because of these challenges, of organic loads, COD, Suspended Matter, TSS in these kinds of wastewaters. So difficult wastewaters, I would categorize also, as something which conventional membranes are not able to recycle very efficiently.

So, what kind of technologies are needed for this difficult wastewater?
Prayas: One thing you need is open channel membranes which are able to sustain the load of organics, the load of suspended matter directly. You need to have the right understanding of not only the chemistry, but the source and organics as well. Because the wastewater stems from the production and the linkage of the production and source of wastewater to the quality of wastewater and its impact on the treatment is very important. Therefore, knowing the industry and its background is very important for solution providers.

Also the energy footprint of the solution that you provide – it’s all in the OPEX. For equipment such as multiple effect evaporators, we see the annual energy OPEX is as high as (in some cases) 80 percent of the CAPEX. Which means you are going to spend 80 percent of your CAPEX every year in just energy OPEX. So you have got to make the right decision in terms of what kind of product or what kind of solution you are looking at.

Please tell us about any recent project you have done in the desalination & reuse segments.
Prayas: We have a very interesting project with a company which is into salt and bromine production in the Kutch region of Gujarat. It is a challenging project, given the high saline and variable quality of feed water based on the tides. This is a project to take high saline seawater in that region, bring it to boiler grade water for boiler use and the RO concentrate – the brine from the RO system will be used as a source of salt for their salt recovery and bromine recovery in the process. It should be commissioned by the month of May 2018.

There is a project, based in central India, where we are going to the source of wastewater within the process, apply recycling within the industrial process to be able to reuse water and also recover the resource which was otherwise ending down the pipe into the wastewater plant and then eventually into the environment.

In terms of Government policies, anything you would like to comment on?
Prayas: The one thing that I believe needs to come to our part of the world is to arrive at the right pricing for water. It is still being used a bit of tool, as an incentive – water and wastewater is being used as an industrial incentive. For example, it is said, come to this part of the country or this state you can discharge wastewater or we will give you water, etc. We need to realize that the cost of this water is not what we are paying today. In some areas, the industries are paying even 28-35 rupees a cubic meter – still a fraction of what it is costing the government to deliver that water. We foresee a day where we are able to go to a client and say, hey, you should reuse your water and do zero liquid discharge not only because it is good for the environment but because it’s also good for your balance sheet. If it’s economic we don’t need to drive anything, people will do it because they will save money.

You mean the value of the water should be conveyed?
Prayas: Once the value of the water is conveyed, the system will automatically correct itself, by bringing in the simplest correction. And we are not talking about migrating to the true cost. When we started this business we used to see industry paying about Rs.5 a cubic meter. Today, we see the industry paying an average of Rs.20-25 a cubic meter. Water price keeps increasing and on the other hand, we are getting more and more competitive. Our zero liquid discharge cost is coming down. We see a tipping point may be several years down the line, but we will get there.

Many industries already have an existing treatment system and plants. Can they be used in an integrated manner for a new treatment plant?
Prayas: Yes, we firmly believe that it is an investment the companies make. We always tell the clients that we will utilize the baseline they already have. We always have a ‘solution’ based approach. We are here to provide them a solution which we believe is most competitive and will be in favor of the client. Fortunately, we have a lot of flexibility in our product and in our engineering as already mentioned. We provide the best solution which brings the lowest cost of water reuse to the client.

What are your plans for the next 3-5 years?
Prayas: We are mainly focusing on integrated solutions. We see our footprint in ZLD, especially in end-to-end ZLD growing. ROSERVE, which is another big initiative of ours, is also a focus. As explained, most companies look at this as a non-productive expense. We want to take that off their balance sheet. Again, keeping a solutions-based approach, getting companies to take this asset off their balance sheet. It is not a priority for most, especially considering the slow CAPEX cycle the industry is in currently. We have therefore been able to come up with some partners and solutions where we can provide this on a lease – be it an operating lease or a short/long term rental contract. The customer does not need to invest the CAPEX. We come in with our equipment and we get paid per cubic meter of water that we recover for them.

We have several ROSERVE contracts which we are running today with large customers in Textiles, Pharmaceuticals & Automobiles sectors and short-term contracts with few Municipalities.It’s only about a year and half old concept, but it’s doing quite well and we are marketing it in India, and overseas as well.

Quality, I suppose would be an important aspect of this concept (ROSERVE)?
Prayas: Of course quality comes first. It always does…the moment you talk about solutions and the cost of wastewater. We don’t tell a client that we are selling them capital equipment worth Rs 10 Crore. We say we are providing you a solution which recycles water at Rs. 30-35 a cubic meter. That single statement encompasses everything – technology, quality, service, reliability…and bring to the industry a complete solution.


This interview was published on the 3rd of April, 2018 on