Can the acquisition of PWNT by Nijhuis Saur Industries help to elevate ceramic membranes to the next level? Tom Freyberg speaks to CEO Menno Holterman to find out more.
A poster child for ceramic membranes
A collective sigh of relief could perhaps be heard in the water sector following the announcement that Nijhuis Saur Industries had acquired PWNT.
Originally spun out of Dutch drinking water utility PWN, PWNT had become the poster child for ceramic membranes, particularly in showcasing how they can be applied, at scale, to utility drinking water applications.
The tougher (and more expensive) membranes had a successful history in industrial applications, with tough to treat waters where they could be pushed harder compared to their polymeric cousins.
PWNT had witnessed success getting the ceramic membranes into Singapore (PUB's CCK Waterworks) and Southern England (South West Water’s Mayflower plant).
Despite rumoured teething challenges with its Andijk III flagship facility in the Netherlands, the company appeared to be progressing under the watch of the previous CEO, Jonathan Clement.
However, as former interim CEO Joke Cuperus told Aquatech Online back in 2019, the strategy of an international technology arm pursuing projects globally didn’t align with the mothership back home: namely a water utility that is providing safe and reliable drinking water.
With questions being asked over the future of PWNT in relation to PWN, it was perhaps fortunate and good timing for Menno Holterman, the CEO of Nijhuis Saur Industries, to step in.
A powerful combination
After SAUR acquired Nijhuis Industries, the vision has been to create a reference player in the industrial water market, a segment estimated to be worth €20-25 billion per year.
Adding ceramic membranes will strengthen the company’s technology toolbox but helps to position it well for further expansion into surface water treatment.
“Aware of the challenges PWNT had been facing…we believe the time is right to help PWNT to scale up to its full potential.”
Speaking to Aquatech Online, CEO Menno Holterman said: "Surface water will become one of the most important sources of water in the years to come. To convince utilities to choose your solution, you need robust technologies.
“Aware of the challenges PWN had been facing helping PWNT go from start-up to scale up, we believe the time is right to help PWNT to scale up its full potential and bring ceramics to the global market.”
PWNT will become separate from the utility PWN as part of the acquisition. However, the three companies will remain connected via a five-year R&D agreement to “help PWN with continued innovation”.
“In the last couple of years, we have seen growing interest in technologies applied in the industrial market being upscaled in the municipal market, for drinking water and wastewater."
“We have to close the water cycle, and a number of industrial process water projects will become economical if we can turn treated effluent into drinking water quality."
“By grouping ceramic membranes together into drinking water purification packages, it will make it more affordable.”
To date, around 15 per cent of Nijhuis Saur Industries revenue comes from the municipal end-user market via EPC contractors. Holterman sees this growing and believes that grouping ceramic membranes into drinking water purification packages will make it more affordable and “accessible to more utilities”.
"If you look at innovation in drinking water, we have much technology to get to that market and also, with our capabilities built up around industrial, we can bring solutions to the market much faster,” he added.
A ceramic revolution is coming?
In a previous article, membrane expert and independent consultant, Dr Graeme Pearce said that “the case is starting to look compelling for ceramic membranes to be the next major trend”.
Speaking to Aquatech Online, the principal at Membrane Consultancy Associates said PWNT has made a case for ceramics and overcome cost concerns through engineering innovation.
“The market is now poised, and it makes sense for PWNT to exploit now a wider reach which will undoubtedly follow from the Nijhuis-Saur acquisition,” he said.
“The big question for me is whether the company will keep its focus on drinking water or whether it will diversify into other high growth areas such as SWRO pre-treatment? The case for ceramics in desalination is based on fouling and bio-fouling control rather than integrity and replacement rates. Still, these benefits would be just as important to the end-user.”
PWNT in the hands of Holterman, someone with a history of partnering, buying and scaling companies with repeated success, could be a powerful combination. Watch this space.
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