Koch Membrane Systems has recast itself as Koch Separation Solutions (KSS) after broadening its portfolio through the acquisition of Canadian ion exchange systems supplier Eco-Tec, Inc.
The move marks an important shift in Koch’s strategic approach to the liquids separation market after more than 50 years of focusing on membrane-based applications, and reflects a growing desire to offer a more comprehensive suite of solutions to its largely industrial client base.
“Thirty years ago there was a lot of focus on meeting strict wastewater discharge regulations, then came a wave of reuse. The next wave is going to be about how we can extract value from industrial processes, and that is where we are positioning Koch Separation Solutions,” explained KSS president Manny Singh.
He sees the food and beverage industry as the fastest-growing end market for KSS’s products. The ability of membranes and ion exchange-based technologies to separate individual protein strains from dairy streams plays directly into the emerging theme of extracting high-value proteins from cheese whey, which in the past was typically regarded as a waste stream.
Other areas of value creation where KSS’s solutions could be applied include recovering caustic from industrial processes, generating value from black liquor in the pulp and paper industry, and acid purification in the metal finishing business.
“A lot of copper refining is done using acid baths, and the spent acid is filled with metals,” said Singh. “New technologies are able to recover acid by removing metals which may be of value to customers, and those metals can be extracted and purified to the point where they create value similar to what whey protein is doing in the dairy sector,” he explained. To this end, Eco-Tec has developed specialty ion exchange resins for removing cobalt, nickel, antimony and bismuth from spent acid in the copper refining industry.
“As we looked at the technical challenges in all these industries, there are a lot of areas where membranes do not do the job. If you think of a stream containing ten different products and you want to separate one out of those ten, that’s where ion exchange technology comes into play,” Singh told GWI. “We felt that ion exchange was the closest addition to the core membrane technology that we already have.”
Eco-Tec’s unique value proposition lies in the very small bead size of its ion exchange resins. While this can create challenges around regeneration and system pressure, it has the advantage of reducing the height of the columns to around 10% of conventional systems, significantly diminishing the physical footprint of the system. For this reason, a unit can be installed on a single skid, which in turn opens up synergies with Koch’s membrane applications.
“One of our initiatives going forward will be how to combine the Eco-Tec ion exchange system with UF pre-treatment,” said Singh. “If we can leverage their very small footprint and put UF pre-treatment upstream of an ion exchange system on one skid, we believe that’s going to be a unique offering in the market.”
There is also potential to combine Eco-Tec’s ion exchange systems with Koch’s SelRO membranes, which can handle the caustic conditions required during the ion exchange regeneration phase. Singh also has plans to convert Eco-Tec’s system to a sanitary design for the juice industry, which will enable KSS to supply its own ion exchange systems for debittering, alongside tubular membranes for pulp removal.
Although more than 50% of Eco-Tec’s business is focused on process separation applications, Singh believes there is substantial growth potential on the water and wastewater side. For example, he is convinced that replacing mixed-bed ion exchangers for high-purity water applications with Eco-Tec’s compact system need not compromise the quality of the ultra-pure water produced.
“The market is not fully aware of what their technology can do. Our immediate job will be to explain to the consulting engineers how much value they can bring with their packed column, and how it is able to meet effluent quality or treated water quality requirements without using mixed-bed,” he explained.
Given its large installed base, the membrane replacement market has become increasingly important to the legacy Koch Membrane Systems business, which has been growing at 15-20% in recent years. Over half of its sales are derived from repeat business and upgrades of existing installations, with revenues split roughly evenly between water/wastewater applications and process separation.
Going forward, Singh expects the combined business to generate around one third of its revenues from the U.S., a third from Europe and a third elsewhere (Eco-Tec has a particularly strong presence in India and Latin America, while KMS is stronger in Europe and China).
“We want to develop a whole library of solutions for different high-value products, but there’s still a lot more to be done.”
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION
The fluid separation division of Koch Industries originally evolved out of MIT. It has expanded into new areas through acquisition, and now offers a palette of solutions.
This article originally appeared in Global Water Intelligence.