Craig Beckman, CEO of Aqua Membranes interview
Water treatment Membranes Americas

The garage start-up now 3D printing its own membrane path

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

After covering 3D printing spacer manufacturer, Aqua Membranes, in our most recent Tech Dive, Andrew Godfrey sits down with its CEO, Craig Beckman, to find out more. 

Interesting ideas and ‘Aha’ moments 

It started with an idea, says the Aqua Membranes CEO.

“It was one of those interesting companies that had an idea, and then the idea got shelved for a while, and then somebody picked it up again,” Craig Beckman, CEO of Aqua Membranes.

“I'm not the founder of the company. That's Rodney Herrington. 20 years ago, Rodney was working for a different company doing some research for individual purification devices for the US military.

“The idea was a device that a soldier could put in their backpack and would start with any water source and end up with a drinkable water source. One part of the project was disinfection, the other was making sure that all salts, heavy metals and other inorganic contaminates were removed.”

In the end, the disinfection side of the research was spun out into its own company called MIOX, while the other part of the research went where most new innovative and niche ideas go, the shelf for a later day. 

The day did arrive, and in 2011, the idea of making a miniature reverse osmosis (RO) membrane element became a reality. 

But how do you shrink a membrane element? With great difficulty. 

“We started doing some computer modelling and said, well, there's only so much we can shrink this. The only layer we could shrink was the feed spacer.”

Feed spacers are a vital part of any RO membrane as they separate the membrane sheets while allowing for enhanced mixing. 

“The engineers literally took a hot pot that you'd cook rice or noodles in and melted wax and then rigged an HP plotter to inject or to spray down that wax into little bumps.”

What followed for Aqua Membranes was a series of ‘Aha’ moments; the first was when Herrington thought he could make something different to sit between the layers of the membranes that would dramatically reduce the size of the membrane. 

The second followed a few years later when the notion of 3D printing was floated by one engineer and rather than look for a new mesh material, get rid of the mesh completely and integrate the gap into the membrane surface. 

It was all well and good having the ideas, now Aqua Membranes needed to prove it – so naturally, that’s where the hot pot came into play.

“The engineers literally took a hot pot that you'd cook rice or noodles in and melted wax and then rigged an HP plotter to inject or to spray down that wax into little bumps,” Beckman explains. 

“It took days to make one membrane leaf, but they were able to make a finished element, run it, prove that the salt concentration wouldn't be an issue, the benefits would be there as far as more productivity, meaning you can get a more active area in the same diameter.”
What started as a garage operation using borrowed cookware that took days to make a single leaf grew into a high-speed, repetitive, high-quality process that can be done in less than a minute. 

“We are not a flat sheet membrane manufacturer,” Craig makes sure to point out. “We buy membrane from the market, we unroll, print it, and then assemble it into the finished industrial element.” 

3D printing trend

Additive manufacturing is at the heart of Aqua Membranes, and Beckman was keen to show that the technology that has come along was the 10-centimetre square box that was used in elementary school. 

“Our technology is so much more, we call it two-and-a-half d printing because we're printing very wide in the X and Y dimensions, but tiny in the Z dimension. We're only a couple of millimetres tall, so it's probably the most comparable to braille. 

“In one membrane leaf, we've got about 20 to 30,000 individual features. The goal was to marry the small, compact, 3d printed tool, and the large format inkjet printing for billboards.”

Currently, Aqua Membranes employs two printing processes; one is its prototyping process that offers greater variation in patterns, and the other one is a repeat process that uses the same pattern over and over again – it sacrifices the advantage of flexibility in exchange for speed. 

“The most significant change we’ve seen in 3D printing is the accuracy of the printing.”

When I asked Beckman about how Aqua Membranes sees the growing trend of 3D printing, a slight smile appears on his face.

“3D printing is one of those buzzwords like AI and machine learning and all of that of, "Oh, well you're doing 3D printing, great." Then we have to explain, "Well, it's more like two-and-a-half d printing, and it's for water treatment." 

“Precision and accuracy. The most significant change we’ve seen in 3D printing is the accuracy of the printing. 15 years ago, the idea of taking a 3D printer deposit something the size of a pencil dot with precision was out of the question, take hot melt for example. It used to be hot melt was just a throw it down and it would glob up, and that's the best you could do.

“But there are technologies on the market now that are kind of 3D printing, kind of additive manufacturing that are allowing the hot melt, for example, to go into new areas because it's much more precise.”

It’s easier to design an aircraft engine than tackle the wastewater sector 

The membrane sector is dominated by a couple of big players and it is a challenge to break into the space, especially the water treatment arena, adds Beckman.

“Most industries are risk averse. I do think the water treatment tends to be a bit more because the quality of the water has an outsourced or oversized impact on your product.

“In the industrial side, there's a big barrier to entry, the same with the municipal side, seawater, desalination, or even brackish treatment for inland desalination. You're making drinking water for people and you're dealing with politicians and politicians are even more risk-averse.

“The second best way to get fired as a politician is to raise the water rates, the first is to cause a quality or supply issue.”

2022 was the year that saw Aqua Membranes launch ConZerv after it was officially launched at the American Membrane Technology Association Show. 

“The second best way to get fired as a politician is to raise the water rates, the first is to cause a quality or supply issue.”

Micron, who back in 2021 announced the financial backing of Aqua membranes, want the company to create a product that could be used in microelectronics and other industrial applications such as, oil & gas, pulp and paper, power generation and food and beverage sector. Beckman again notes that Aqua Membranes has not yet entered the drinking water market. 

“I worked for a CEO at General Electric one time that came from the aircraft engine, and he said, aircraft engines are simple.

“We didn't believe him but he said you only have to deal with air and fuel. Those are the only two inputs. In the water industry and especially in the wastewater industry, every site is different every time. There's just so much variation, I sometimes joke, you solve a problem in Dallas, Texas, you can't do the same thing in Fort Worth, Texas, even though they're only thirty miles apart!”

Approaching a crossroad

Beckman says that Aqua Membranes has a multi-year development plan with Micron which the company is halfway through. He says that it was no coincidence that the announcement of the backing of Aqua Membranes was on the same day as the semiconductor manufacturing giant released its sustainability report.

“That was very intentional because they view this as furthering the path of being a more sustainable company. Semi-conductors require extensive energy and water to produce, and they’re looking for any opportunities they can to do it better, to do it with fewer resources. Our technology enables the last big chunk of waste to be taken out of ultrapure water production.”

Looking ahead, Beckman says: “We are planning to scale up, we have one product already so it makes sense to launch another product by the end of the year.

“We get a lot of people saying “Hey, come make your product here.” We're based in Albuquerque, New Mexico now, but literally, it seems like every month I have somebody else says, "Oh no, set up a factory here. Set up a factory here.

“Everybody wants jobs in their backyard and everybody wants to be seen as this centre of excellence, this hub of high treatment, high technology water.”

Aqua Membranes recently announced an MoU with The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (the water Authority in Saudi Arabia) and the long-term goal is to do some level of manufacturing in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's largest users of desalination. 

As the interview draws to an end, Beckman concludes that there is not a shortage of options for the once-hot pot-powered garage start-up. Aqua Membranes has arrived on the scene and the organisation is planning on printing its own path.