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Bringing clean water to millions

The inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize laureate Dr Andrew Benedek's ground-breaking work in membrane technologies has helped millions of people - from rich countries to developing ones - gain access to clean drinking water. His next big idea? Turning waste into resources and energy.

By Jean Chua, Eco-Business

It was in the late 1960s, when Canadian scientist Andrew Benedek - known today as an international authority on water technology - was starting his career as an engineer that he had a personal awakening to the world's water crisis.

Fresh out of Canada's McGill University with a degree in chemical engineering, he was hired by a petrochemical company in the United States.

His first job, he says, was to measure the pollution coming out of its plants. But the scary thing was - nobody really knew what to do about the "chemicals from refineries going into rivers".

"We simply didn't have the knowledge," he tells Eco-Business in a recent interview. "Yes, we knew about sewage treatment in the 60s but we knew nothing about chemical treatment. We were just letting it out into the rivers."

As he witnessed what he described as "gross pollution, untreated toxic waste" destroying the environment, he decided to pursue post-graduate studies to see if he could "turn the picture around".

"It was awful. It had gotten to the point of rivers (in the US) catching fires," he says "And I wanted to be the one to undo the pollution."

He promptly left his job, went to University of Washington, Seattle, and by 1970 obtained his PhD in chemical engineering with a focus on wastewater treatment.

He then accepted a professorship at Canada's McMaster University where he taught and conducted research on improving water quality.

There, his obsession with finding scientific solutions to the water problem continued; and it was at McMaster that he discovered the great potential and benefits of low-pressure membranes that could replace existing wastewater treatment processes.

"This made treating wastewater a lot cheaper, a lot easier, and more energy-efficient," he says. "We really changed the way it was done."

It was this breakthrough that would eventually win him recognition internationally as a technology pioneer, and paved the way for him to become the inaugural laureate of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which was set up by Singapore in 2008 to honour outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving the world's water problems.

The award was the icing on the cake for Dr Benedek, who had won previous accolades such as American Water Works Association's George Warren Fuller Award in 2000, the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, and the Society for Chemical Industry's International Award in 2004. His first company Zenon Environmental Inc, which he set up in 1980 to apply the membrane technology, also won the Stockholm Water Industry award in 2003.

From scientist to entrepreneur

By adopting membranes in water treatment, Dr Benedek opened up new possibilities of water purification and desalination.

These membranes use less energy, have lower operating costs and are easier to use, compared with conventional water purification technologies. Because the technique can be used in huge treatment facilities as well as small portable water treatment systems for rural communities, the versatility meant that good quality drinking water can now be produced affordably almost anywhere in the world.

In countries such as Belgium, Canada and the US, this technology has allowed water of poor quality to be treated to drinking standards.

In developing countries such as China and Brazil, it can be used to produce drinking water through desalination, which has now become a cheaper and viable option.

Singapore is also one beneficiary of his research. Its brand of ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water, called NEWater, is reclaimed from treated used water using membrane technology and has helped the resource-poor country attain water sustainability.

Zenon eventually became a world leader in the field, and was so successful that General Electric, the world's biggest industrial firm, bought the firm in June 2006 for a whopping C$790 million (US$656 million). At the time of the sale, the 26-year old company had annual sales of about CDN$250 million and employed 1,500 people.

Dr Benedek left the firm and went back to academia thereafter, becoming a research associate at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at San Diego - where he studied the effects of global warming on the world's oceans - until 2008.

It was during this time that he learnt that he was nominated for the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which honours the world's most outstanding contributions and innovations in water technology or management.

From a prize to the next big idea

Established by Singapore to be the ‘crown jewel' of the Singapore International Water Week, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is named after Singapore's first Prime Minister whose contributions helped put the country on the path of water sustainability.

Its nominating committee, in their citation, said Dr Benedek's revolutionary water treatment stood out in a field of 39 international nominations entered in the first year.

The committee comprised leading figures in the corporate, utility, research, policy and government sectors. They looked at the technology, policy or programme, its implementation and above all, its impact on humanity. The scientist says the prize brought him wider acclaim and enabled him to talk to a wider audience about his work and passion for water treatment. Today, Dr Benedek remains a close friend of Singapore, as part of the International Advisory Panel under the Environment and Water Industry Programme Office to grow the Singapore water industry.

"It's certainly an honour," he said of the prize. "And I am heartened that the people in Singapore take water so seriously."

He says he also has the prize to thank for giving him his next big idea - taking wastewater treatment a step further by not just cleaning water but also extracting resources in the process.

"When I had to present a lecture about the prize, I talked about the next generation of wastewater treatment plants - which in my vision are really resource recovery plants. And I started a company doing just that."

"So the idea of the company, it was borne pretty much out of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize," he said.

Going beyond protecting water

These days, Dr Benedek is pre-occupied with this big idea of extracting resources out of water.

He says that sustainable development is not just about protecting water sources, but also about finding solutions to co-exist with the planet and having as little environmental impact as possible.

"Turning wastewater plants into resource recovery centres is one humble way of going in that direction," he adds.

Rather than looking at waste as something to get rid of, the right approach is to look at it as a resource, and make it "economically attractive" to recover materials from the resource, he points out.

His firm, called Anaergia, which he started in 2008, now has four offices in Europe, three in Asia, two in North America and one in Africa.

Anaergia's anaerobic digestion technology helps produce clean energy, fertiliser and recycled water from organic waste streams, and have relevance to municipal, industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors.

Anaergia's technologies are now used at more than 1,600 resource recovery facilities worldwide, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating new revenue sources its clients.

Dr Benedek said he is grateful to the Singapore for recognising his work, and giving him the impetus to take his research to the next level.

"It was a great experience to be here sharing my vision and discussing the untapped possibilities in water management. One of the greatest memories of the event was having dinner seated next to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. What struck me the most was the brilliant, strategic, clear and very firm thinking that Mr. Lee exhibited on subjects as diverse as sustainability in Singapore, US politics and wealth creation in Singapore as well as elsewhere in Asia. As far as his views and actions on water sustainability, I have understood them and admired them even before meeting Mr. Lee as I have been fortunate to have participated in some of the projects over the years that came from his vision. It was an honour to have met him and be part of his continuing legacy for Singapore," Dr Benedek recalls.

Mr Lee, who died aged 91 on March 23 from severe pneumonia, navigated Singapore through the critical early years of independence on a path of development that put a good living environment squarely at its heart. He was also regarded by many as a visionary who understood that a "clean and green" Singapore - in his own words - was both a competitive advantage and a prerequisite for the well-being of the city's residents.

Apart from building up his new company, Anaergia, Dr Benedek also leads NGO missions to bring the benefits of his membrane technology to developing countries that are in need of clean water and better public health.

Now a venture capitalist himself, Dr Benedek says he wants to help find technological solutions to the world's environmental problems. His success in business has enabled him to invest in alternative energy companies in recent years. He notes that this will become more important as population growth, development and the impacts of climate change affect not just our water but fuel resources.

Above all, he passionately believes in the power of technology in making the world a better place.

"My mission in life is to do my best to make the world a better place. The question is how?," Dr Benedek notes rhetorically. "I think I have been gifted to recognise what the world needs and the technology to get us there. I am very lucky to have been able to make a difference."