Wednesday, April 4, 2012
An Innovation State of Mind
Water - the most recognizable chemical formula in the world. This vital substance covers over 70% of the Earth's surface and has from the genesis of time sustained all life. Our civilization largely depends on our ability to do three things to water; move it, measure it and treat it.
Early man's use of a ladle to transport water to his mouth, perform a sniff-test to ensure quality, progressed through the ages to Greek innovators like Archimedes' design of a screw pump and Hippocrates' cloth bag filter around 500 B.C. Further technology advancements came with the discovery of microorganisms in the late 17th century and chlorination in the 19th century.
Our ability to sustain large populations is inextricably linked to our ability to farm intensively. With agriculture today consuming 70% of fresh water supplies, it has been argued that today's food production can largely be seen as a global trade in water.
Discussions on the relationship between water and energy, known as the water-energy nexus, are increasingly being held. Escalating energy costs act as a market driver to water equipment manufacturers, who fight to become known as the greenest supplier.
Likewise energy providers understand the cost of water use in their production.
In addition to the relationship between water and energy, we see a strong relationship between water and technology – a water-energy-technology nexus. Today's advanced water treatment technologies are helping to create more and more advanced materials, this in turn is helping to create more advanced treatment technologies. In the very near future we can see nanotechnology and semi-conductors (in the form of UV-LEDs) playing an increased role in water treatment. Add to that major advances in rapid microbiological analysis driven by photonics and microprocessor developments, and the relationship becomes clearer.
The challenge then becomes how do we embrace these relationships to help solve problems? Whether the advances lay in improved access to clean water and sanitation in the developing world, or in resolving hot button issues like the spread of invasive species through ballast water, we should look to industries that have a track record of innovation to draw on their success.
Google's use of sea water in Finland to cool their massive servers, or the rapid proliferation of horizontal fracturing in natural gas production represent both innovative advances and market opportunities. Too often we limit progress through fear of new technology adoption.
We need researchers, thought leaders and business executives who understand these relationships and have the courage to deploy resources to accelerate change. Some of these people will gather at an upcoming WWEMA Washington Forum in D.C. in April where these and other issues will be discussed. We should not shrink from the challenges facing us, or suppress innovations solely for the sake of profits; we should present them to the world.
The progress of civilization can be linked to our skill at moving, measuring and treating water. However, our industry competes with many others for the brightest minds. Unemployment amongst engineers is less than half the national average and higher education is not keeping pace with the demand.
H2O is universally understood as the foundation of life, so let's work together to recognize our water-innovators and give room to those who will carry us forward to a secure future.
Story adapted from http://www.waterworld.com/.