Water is life! Freshwater is essential for life, even more important for survival than food and energy. Population growth, urbanization, agriculture, and industrialization have been constantly increasing the demand for clean water over the years. Climate change makes water usage and management one of the top priorities on the agendas of researchers worldwide. Water recycling, the treatment of wastewater, is becoming increasingly important. Much of the rainwater currently runs directly into the world's oceans, and more than 30% of tap water is lost through leaking pipe systems and outdated technology.
That is why researchers worldwide are working to update water infrastructures using the latest technology to prevent leaks and sewage and driving digitalization to make the system more sustainable. The mission is that water should no longer be wasted but should flow exactly where it is really needed: in homes, buildings, agriculture, and in manufacturing plants. As a further benefit, less new water is needed. Future generations shall be equipped with water distribution and treatment devices that will ensure their supply of sufficient fresh water.
Learn more about the water distribution system of the future and how it will help us deal with water scarcity in this dialogue between Anja Eimer (Siemens Digital Industries, Head of Global Water and Wastewater Business) and Professor Dr. Paul-Uwe Thamsen (Technische Universität Berlin, Head of the Fluid System Dynamics Chair). Both speakers are passionate about innovation for tomorrow’s water distribution and collaborate in various industry-academia research projects.
“Water is the oil of the 21st century,” declared Andrew Liveris, former Chairman and CEO of The Dow Chemical Company. According to the International Institute for Water Management, global water demand will increase by 25% by 2030. Are there ways to reverse this trend?
Eimer: At first, I think the people are a very important factor. We need to change people´s mindset to make society more conscious about what it means to use and waste water. And second, we need to deploy new technologies. For example, we have today already a system in place that identifies leakages in the network, as in average 30% of water is getting lost in the distribution network. With this system we are able to achieve greatest impact by identifying these leakages, repairing them and thus avoiding water losses.
On the industrial side, we are looking into topics like the measurement of water consumption along the complete value chain of a product. Other research areas deal with optimized water distribution and future water management systems.
Thamsen: Whereas the global water demand is increasing, the individual demand is going down dramatically. Here in Berlin, for example, the water consumption has been decreasing from appr. 150 liters per person per day in the year 1990 to below 120 liters since 2010.
Why? Because of new washing and cleaning machines that are driving down water consumption for everybody. So, technical solutions play a very big role in reducing the world’s water demands.
Eimer: And, Prof. Thamsen, I guess you are an expert on the topic of reusing water, and you have some ideas already on how that might affect our future water distribution systems…
Thamsen: Yes, that is another point. We are usually using water from one source and then giving it back to nature, more or less: it is a one-way street. But, in the future we need to have a closed loop, meaning we use the water at home, then we treat it, and finally we reuse it. The idea to use drinking water to flush the toilet is the worst idea, which was ever made!
The challenge of a closed loop system is that current water systems are in average more than a hundred years old. The problem is that over the last century billions have already been invested into a system that now needs to be changed. The aim would be not to use drinking water anymore, but to apply re-used water for flushing the toilet, for example, or to clean a car or something. I do not need water of “drinking-water quality” for cleaning processes!
Very often, transparency is the first step towards more efficiency. Tony Allen of King's College in London has developed the concept of “virtual water,” which aims to inform how much water was used to produce and transport individual goods and services. Do you think it is conceivable that tomorrow's goods will carry a label about the product’s water consumption?
Eimer: Yes. At Siemens we provide a framework which measures the carbonization footprint along the value chain in the industry. Now we are looking into how to apply the same framework for water consumption and to the complete water distribution network. The ideas are available, but the technology is not yet at a degree of readiness to implement.
The smart water metering is one of the research areas we want to collaborate here in the new Siemensstadt Square city district of Berlin. We would really like to test how to better inform people and create awareness about their water consumption.
Thamsen: We do have some crazy ideas in that corner. For example, one idea is to increase awareness about water consumption and create an incentive for people to be careful with water consumption and waste. An app indicates and rates the water usage of individuals, with nice emojis for sustainable water use, and vice versa. If the app rates your water usage “in the green area”, you might get a smile emoji and pay less. If the app rates your water usage “in the red area”, as if you put very heavy cleaning materials and chemicals into the water, then the app signal turns red, and you must pay more.
Saving water is a huge challenge in many parts of the world. At the same time, about one billion people do not have free access to clean drinking water. On what kind of solutions are you working to change that and give more people access to this source of life?
Thamsen: The water problem of the world is a big one. My motivation has always been bringing water to the people. First, I was educated in pumps and systems, then I sold pumps to people. Today I am driving research on new water pump systems and technologies for the future with the aim to ensure free access to clean drinking water for as many as possible. We need solutions to solve these old problems
Eimer: I agree. One big topic, for example, that we at Siemens see is around desalination, because there are so many areas in the world where people actually don't have access to freshwater at all. They need to take water from the sea. It needs to be treated appropriately in order to reach the high quality of drinking water. The technology required for this desalination process is part of the Siemens Digital Industries portfolio and is ongoing continuous further development. There is however a challenging aspect about this technology: it needs a lot of energy. So, the energy consumption of desalination sites is very high. We found a solution that balances both challenges, the need for clean drinking water and the energy consumption: Siemens offers technology to run desalination processes with savings up to 8-15% of energy . These savings will increase with the development of the technology in the future, as we aim to have such desalination plants all around the world.
We spoke a lot about technology. But in the end, researchers and entrepreneurs can’t do it alone. Tomorrow’s water policy will play a central role. What policy measures do you think would help to promote a more sustainable use of water?
Eimer: No doubt, regulations concerning water quality must increase if the re-use of water will play a central role in the future. On the one hand policies for drinking water itself, on the other hand precise specifications for drinking and non-drinking water use cases are crucial. Furthermore, we need the right measurements standards to ensure that the water has the right quality at the right time. Finally, re-defined regulations and penalties will be needed globally to stops industrial pollution of rivers. I think in the last years, we all saw in the news around the world that micro pollution and the problems from microplastics in the oceans became increasingly alarming. When new regulations will be in place, we will have the opportunity to implement the technology, the systems to measure the quality of water, and to really get transparency on what is actually happening.
Thamsen: There is no way to avoid wastewater. As Anja Eimer says, we will need new definitions of water quality for the future. Highest quality for drinking, middle quality for cleaning, and lower quality for flushing water. This kind of definition could also separate the sewage in the streets. We could have heavy treatment for chemical sewage, and light treatment for rainwater.
What role does the academic landscape play? How important is cooperation between universities and companies to handle the water management of the future?
Thamsen: If you want to solve the water problem, you have to have new ideas, and those are created typically at universities. I encourage my students at TU Berlin to follow and develop their great ideas. Sometimes, these can be turned into industry-relevant innovations. Working with industry to take these innovations into the market, and help save the world’s water problem, is what drives me.
Eimer: From the industry side, we only see benefits in the cooperation between universities and industry. We can really test the ideas in a very specific approach, really going into the details. That is something you often cannot do in the industry due to lack of resources in predevelopment phases. The beauty is, like Professor Thamsen already explained, to bring both sides together. The research side for the technical part, and the industry side to see if there´s really a business case behind it. I believe that if there is a business case behind it, you solve the problems of the world by scaling the solution.
We have a lot of new infrastructure built in new megacities in the Middle East and Asia. There we can really build upon a greenfield approach and test new ideas and applications. As Professor Thamsen already explained, building this on an existing brownfield infrastructure -- that is the bigger job to do.
Thamsen: In former times we built pumps and pipes and pump systems out of these. Nowadays, we have digitalization. That means we have pumps, systems, and the control units to run the water business, all connected in a smart way. We are dealing with a new dynamic dimension, which can influence the system to make a smarter water system. In the future, when I can predict that the rain is coming in two hours, I can adjust the complete system in advance. This technology was not available up-to-now! That is exactly what we are jointly working on at Technische Universität Berlin and Siemens.
Last but not least, a personal question: How do you handle water in your private life?
Thamsen: I like to share my dream about getting my favorite beer from the brewery directly into my house in Berlin, sustainably. Well, today we are already successful to get the best drinking water in this way! Saving water is important to save energy and obviously due to water scarcity, but it is a balance to hygienic quality. Also consider that for a glass of drinking water, you must run the tap for a while to get rid of the stagnation water, to receive clean water free from bacteria that have accumulated in the pipe overnight. After 30 seconds the water that comes out will be fine for drinking.
Eimer: I take showers very consciously. This means at the beginning, even when the water is not yet hot, I jump directly into the cold water. It is healthy for the body, and good to save every drop.