Israeli expertise mines the new water frontier

MagSens has developed a fully automated sensor, to be installed at several points in the water-flow process, which can detect even the minutest concentration of contaminating materials in the conducted water.In Israel, clean water is the color of money. Water …

MagSens has developed a fully automated sensor, to be installed at several points in the water-flow process, which can detect even the minutest concentration of contaminating materials in the conducted water.In Israel, clean water is the color of money.

Water technology, currently a $500 million a year export here, has recently become a top priority for both the public and private sectors, which aim to multiply that number helping to establish Israel as a superpower of the global economy.

Israel is already well known for bringing the world agro-tech drip irrigation. But now, Israel is also setting the standards in developing new water technologies that other nations will be looking to as clean water sources become scarcer throughout the century.

This is no pipedream, but rather some creative pipe technology. Dozens of incubator-grown Israeli companies, with government research funding giving way to enormous foreign investments, are devoted to finding solutions to Coleridge’s now pressing poetic prophecy, “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

The world water market (recycling, desalination, quality control, agro-technology and other related developments), is second in size only to the energy industry, with close to $400 billion of business annually, and is the fastest growing field (7% each year) on the planet.

Israel’s contribution to the field is already considerable: 31 desalination facilities including the world’s largest in operation, in Ashkelon. Israel’s Water Commission anticipates that Israel will consume 20% desalinated water by 2010.

In addition, 75% of Israel’s water is recycled after use, well ahead of any other country on the globe; sewage recycling like the Shafdan project in the country’s center, which cleans the ‘grey water’ from the Gush Dan (greater Tel Aviv) region, provides the agricultural sector with 30% of its water.

Dr. Meir Teichner, General Manager of the Kinarot – Jordan Valley Technology Incubator, draws an analogy between Israel’s frugality-driven water expertise and its security need-based defense export success. Borne of years of regional political tension, an arid climate, and a penchant for solving problems with science, the clean water industry here has matured beyond providing for Israel’s needs, and is now nothing less than a revolutionary platform for business, an ‘economic product’ of vast proportions.

He mentions China as a prime target market, whose water crisis and eagerness to invest in water technology as a high national priority is well-known, particularly after the republic announced plans to invest government billions in the industry (including several Israeli companies) at late April’s Water Expo 2006 held in Beijing.

Kinarot, recently purchased by Canadian businessman Ronald Stern’s SPI Group for close to $25 million (over three years) in a deal co-brokered by Mekorot National Water Company Chairman Baruch ‘Booky’ Oren, has for some time nurtured portfolio companies with a heavy bio-tech slant.

However, with its recent privatization, Kinarot is now set to become Israel’s only incubator with a new portfolio consisting only of water management technologies. Mekorot, in addition to serving as the industry giant capable of making international deals like that with Stern, also serves as the beta testing site for water technologies like Kinarot’s. Eventually, says Teichner, some pilot testing will shift to Kinarot’s convenient Jordan Valley backyard – Lake Kinneret, better known as the Sea of Galilee.

While several of the emerging companies on Kinarot’s all-liquid list are still under wraps, two of them, MagSens Ltd. and PML Ltd., are poised to lead Israel in the quest to clean the world’s water.

MagSens, founded by Uri Rapoport, has developed a fully automated online RF (electromagnetic) sensor, to be installed at several points in the water-flow process, which can detect even the minutest concentration of contaminating materials in the conducted water. This allows for constant, non-invasive and real-time monitoring of water sources and pipes from harmful chemicals, which poses a solution for not only environmental and industrial toxins, but also for homeland security concerns.

PML, founded by Professor Joseph Shamir, a laser and electro-optics expert, has created a new generation of super filters, using online laser-based particle size analyzers. Useful also for the optimum production of cement and pharmaceuticals, the automated particle analyzers will replace the time and energy consuming process of lab testing, allowing the detection of solids like lime deposits in water, and also, incredibly, of sub-micron objects like viruses.

Online, ad hoc detection of these particles at every stage of conduction will conserve an enormous amount of power, says Teichner. “Better quality water saves energy,” he told ISRAEL21c, mentioning that 15 % of Israel’s electricity goes to Mekorot’s water-conducting pumps, “The mechanism can shift into high and low gear according to need, without generalizations, and filter appropriately.” The company estimates its global market potential at well exceeding a billion dollars.

There is an overwhelming trend towards materials-based clean technology, as opposed to the once prevalent use of chemicals, is echoed by Nir Belzer, Senior Partner at the Tel-Aviv based Millennium Materials Technologies (MMT) Fund, who points out that there are 600 Israeli companies selling cleantech solutions, 50% of which are start ups. Although not exclusively devoted to water tech, MMT’s portfolio is focused on using materials, like specialized filters, to purify air and water, and producing sources of renewable energy with drastically reduced emissions.

An additional area of water solutions in MMT’s plans is the management of municipal leakage; apparently, in some areas, especially in Europe, where the infrastructure is aging, up to 60% of the water flowing into a given city’s system is lost due to leakage. Water waste prevention and reuptake is a major feature of cleantech products and processes.

Advancing this massive industry push is an organization called Waterfronts – Israel Water Alliance. Established in September, the lobby represents the interest of developing Israel’s water technology sector, bringing everyone into the pool – from academia and incubators, to VC funds, private investors, and water tech companies, to the Manufacturers Association of Israel, Israel’s Water Association, the National Nanotechnology Committee, and Mekorot.

Teichner is enthusiastic about Waterfronts, and says that the public confidence it creates in Israel’s ability to lead with its water solutions, as well as the new general awareness about what his sector is doing, has produced a certain momentum which will encourage further government and other funding.

Because although the technology itself is beyond the grasp of most laymen, it is easy to appreciate the trickle-down effect of a Middle East in which Israel’s water wisdom irrigates the globe.

We can all drink to that.

(In September 2005, the Israel Water Forum was formally launched as the Waterfronts Israel Water Alliance, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote advanced R&D and marketing of Israeli technologies for water treatment. For information on Waterfronts’ activities, contact General Manager Mira Rashty. mira@waterfronts.org.il)