Singapore: Future Ready in Water

By Goh Chee Kiong 11 July, 2012

EDB’s head of cleantech on growth areas, new tech, fracking and Singapore's push to be a global hydrohub

SIWW a success with S$13.6 billion of deals & MOUs announced and signed during the week
Growth areas: membrane tech, smart water systems, industrial water & the water-energy-waste nexus
S$470 million spent on R&D by the government now coming to fruition; Goh provides examples
Goh Chee Kiong
Author: Goh Chee Kiong
Goh Chee Kiong is a Director of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), responsible for leading the development of the Cleantech industry since 2003. The Cleantech industry has been identified as a key economic growth area for Singapore, and includes clean energy, environment and water. He took on the additional role as Director, Building & Infrastructure Solutions division in 2012. He is actively involved in many national Cleantech and Urban Solutions initiatives spanning related government agencies. For instance, he leads the industry development efforts within the inter-agency Energy Innovation Programme Office (EIPO) and Environment & Water Industry Programme Office (EWI).
Read more from Goh Chee Kiong →

The Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre is buzzing, despite the sprawling space. The Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) seems to have outdone itself this year. With 18,544 participants in the five flagship programmes – the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, Water Leaders Summit, Water Expo, Water Convention, and Business Forums, Singapore as a global hydrohub in-the-making appears to be moving full steam ahead.

Six years ago, the government of Singapore tasked the Environment & Water Industry Programme Office (EWI) which includes the national water agency PUB and the Economic Development Board (EDB), the country’s lead government agency for planning and executing strategies to enhance Singapore’s position as a global hydrohub. The first SIWW was then held in 2008, and various deals amounting to S$406 million were sealed during that week; in 2011, this number grew to S$2.9billion. This year, a new record was set – a total of S$13.6 billion in terms of projects awarded, tenders, investments and R&D collaborations was announced last week. Judging by this, Singapore looks set to surpass its 2015 target of S$1.7 billion GDP contribution from the water sector.

As SIWW 2012 has diversified into the emerging global industrial water sector and commercialisation of innovative water technologies to address the water-energy nexus, we asked EDB’s director of cleantech, Goh Chee Kiong, to share his views on SIWW, key technologies surfacing, new growth markets for industrial water and the role of government in innovation from R&D to piloting and eventually commercialisation. The back of his name card says “Future Ready is_ a global leader, a great city & a home in Asia for business, innovation and talent.” After talking to him, it is not hard to see that Singapore is indeed doing its best to be Future Ready in water.

CWR: Judging from the crowds, SIWW is certainly well attended. How did you think it went this year? Would you consider it a success?

GCK: This is the 5th edition of SIWW and we feel that it has grown from strength to strength. I think a key barometer of success of the event would be the quality of the people that come to the event – a lot of top talent is in town from CEOs of top water tech companies to many mayors as part of the World Cities Summit. We are very happy with the turn-out. After all, the main aim of SIWW is to be the marketplace for policy makers, technology providers and thought leaders to come together. The main differentiation of SIWW is its strong focus on finding practical solutions and so there is a big slant towards technology and real solutions.

CWR: So what are the key technologies surfacing today?

GCK: For municipal water, membrane technology has been a major focus and we are moving into new areas such as industrial water solutions, smart water management and integrated solutions to address the water-energy-waste nexus.. We have essentially positioned the country as a testbed for new technologies. PUB, our national water agency is always striving to find solutions to our water scarcity challenge. It is therefore responsible for a lot of the innovation we have seen in Singapore, as we increase our water security from diversifying from two national taps (reservoirs & imported water) to four taps with desalination and NEWater. Membrane technology around water treatment, water recycling and desalination is key. Today, Singapore has built on our membrane foundation to using membrane bioreactors.

We are also moving into smart water management. Two years ago, PUB started a project with Singapore Technologies (a large local engineering conglomerate) called Intelligent Management Water System (IMWS). We also have Visenti, a home-grown technology which provides end-to-end real time monitoring solutions called WaterWise. In fact, Xylem and Visenti just signed an MOU at SIWW to develop the smart optimization of water networks by utilizing energy-efficient technology and smart sensing platforms.

CWR: What about industrial water – how is Singapore going to position itself in the emerging global industrial water space?

GCK: Many don’t realize that Singapore has a sizeable manufacturing sector, contributing to about a quarter of our GDP. Our key include industries electronics, chemicals, biomedical sciences and engineering and collectively they consume 55% of our water-use. Municipal use takes up the remaining 45%; we have hardly any agriculture. It’s a big amount and so it’s important for us to help our industry improve on their water-use and wastewater treatment.

CWR: Can you give us an idea of which industrial sectors are of interest to you?

GCK: We are looking for new water solutions for the industrial water market and we believe that this is a new frontier where we can play a role not just domestically, but globally. Beyond Singapore, we are particularly interested in sectors such as mining and shale gas extraction. As you know, water is a big challenge for these industries and the companies are coming to Singapore to look for solutions to their water challenges. Singapore has therefore responded and is now gearing up its research capabilities in these areas.

CWR: Yes, many believe that water will be a constraint for shale gas extraction, what are your views on this?

GCK: Like many others, we believe that the continued success of fracking is tied to good water management. Water will become one of the major bottlenecks for shale gas extraction in the future. And that’s why we see that as one of our focus areas in industrial water technology. We are currently looking at solutions to address the fracking market in places like North America.

Indeed, a company called Memsys with roots in both Singapore and Germany has just entered into an agreement with GE Water to develop water treatment for the unconventional resources industry (which includes fracking) using membrane distillation (MD) technology. MD replicates the conventional thermal evaporation process while using less energy. This is a great example of an application of a technology for a fast-growing industry that also addresses the waste-to-energy nexus.

CWR: Many deals signed this week were with home-grown technology companies. Can you walk us through your R&D programme and how this is brought to fruition?

GCK: Yes, it is gratifying to see technologies being commercialised in Singapore. We started our journey in 2006 and have so far set aside S$470 million in cumulative research funding to grow the water industry. The focus has been on R&D and manpower development coordinated by an inter-governmental agency set-up led by PUB and EDB amongst others. This gives us a strong framework to grow our water industry.

We see the promotion of the entire innovation value chain as key. Singapore offers a full suite of support for this value chain. New solutions/technologies developed through R&D, can be put into practice using Singapore as a testbed. Successful pilots can then be commercialized. Various government agencies including EDB, help successful innovations establish operations in Singapore. This includes helping them look for industrial land, manpower and finding them the right partners to take their solutions to global markets. We see a role for us to play in helping these market-ready solutions reach full-scale commercialisation – not just for solutions innovated in/by Singapore but also solutions invented elsewhere.

CWR: At the Norges Bank seminar today, some participants noted that the price of water in countries which are water needy are not near where they should be to allow new technologies to be economically viable. Do you view this as a stumbling block for commercialisation?

GCK: I am not in a position to advise other countries on their water pricing, but here in Singapore, we are firm believers that water along with other public utilities, such as power and gas, should not be subsidized. We do not want to distort the market. Also unnatural dampening of the price of water leads to wastage, whether by industry or households. We are one of the most water scarce countries in the world and we have experienced droughts and water rationing in the 60’s and 70’s. So as a society we have a broad acceptance that water has to be priced fully and at a level where advanced water technologies/ solutions can be facilitated and adopted.

CWR: Can you share some Singapore water-tech success stories?

GCK: Some of the R&D investments we invested in five years ago are bearing fruit and have lead to water enterprises being spawned in Singapore – such as Water Optic Technology. This is a new breakthrough technology, which can detect contaminants, namely Cryptosporidium, in water in just one hour. Another is MINT – its membrane integrity sensor technology automatically senses that the membrane is at the end of its shelf life and prompts its replacement. MINT will now ship these systems to Australia and the Middle East.

We also have technologies coming from abroad and setting up in Singapore. One such example is Aquaporin from Denmark, which has this revolutionary water filtration technology. They have established a JV with Singapore Membrane Technology Centre to develop a novel aquaporin enhanced biomimetic membrane for application in desalination and water reclamation. They also intend to set up a pilot manufacturing line in Singapore. Just yesterday, Meidensha and PUB announced that they will establish the first Ceramic Membrane MBR Demonstration Plant in Singapore to treat and recycle industrial used water in a more energy-efficient and cost-effective manner. Meidensha will also establish a R&D centre in Singapore.

Basically, we had 50 companies operating in the water sector in 2006 and we have doubled this to a hundred in 2012. They include the likes of GE Water, Siemens Water, Black & Veatch, Nitto Denko, Tory Industries and Singapore household names such as Hyflux, Keppel & Sembcorp. In this period, Singapore-based water companies secured over 100 international projects worth close to S$9billion. As for R&D centres we had three R&D centres in 2006; two of these were public. Now we have 25 R&D centres; only 8 of these are public , the remaining 17 are private. We have come a long way and we are confident that Singapore remains well on track in its vision to be a global hydohub.