It is said at times of a need to presume only one right way of doing things when it comes to technology, but reality would prove otherwise from time to time – and forward osmosis (FO) as a technology is a case in point.
Initially touted as a more effective alternative to conventional desalination techniques, FO technologies have garnered plenty of interest in the water recovery and treatment industries over the past decade. But such a use case was and remains complicated due to the challenge of harvesting clean water from diluted draw solutions, which would make the process cost-effective and energy efficient.
Enter Aromatec, however, which brought a twist to proceedings by flipping the purpose of FO membranes on its head – ideating a new use case that regarded concentrated liquids as the product, instead of the water extracted by draw solutions during the process. Not only was the idea considered unconventional in its approach, but its reliance on a robust FO membrane system – which had not existed prior – also made it difficult to conceive of its practicality at that time.
Aromatec specialises in the use and adoption of a novel membrane technology for the ‘cold’ concentration of high-value aqueous products as well as de-watering use cases. They aim to disrupt the traditional concentration process currently used in multiple industries such as food and beverage (F&B), flavour and fragrances, and pharmaceuticals.
NEW HORIZONS FOR FORWARD OSMOSIS TECHNOLOGIES
Looking back at 2010, a significant breakthrough would unfold thanks to the foresight and perseverance of Prof Wang Rong’s team – including Dr Shi Lei – who successfully invented a thin-film composite hollow fibre FO membrane. Patented in Singapore, Europe and the US, the FO membranes are specially designed to function like cell walls which allow only water to pass through spontaneously, enabling the natural concentration of liquid solutions when used in tandem with a compatible draw solution. Following the discovery, Prof Wang went on to receive the prestigious Alternative Water Resources Prize under the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water (PSIPW) in 2016.
By departing from the original goal of potable water extraction, an extensive range of possible use cases unravelled, leading to the co-founding of Aromatec in 2018 by Prof Wang and Dr Shi. Apart from their present focus on the concentration of high-value liquid products in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, the pair are assessing potential use cases in the fragrances and pharmaceuticals industries – comprising even traditional Chinese medicine. And these are just a couple of numerous possibilities – they are also studying if their FO technology can be used for waste and sludge dewatering purposes, as well as the potential integration of their technology into hydroponic and aquafarming systems, to use fertilisers as natural draw solutions to reclaim water from municipal wastewater for irrigation purposes. The opportunities are nearly boundless.
Broadly speaking, the inception of FO technologies is likely to be welcomed internationally and across industries as decarbonisation efforts continue to take hold. By relying less on mechanical pressure in traditional reverse osmosis (RO) processes or heat in the case of thermal evaporation, FO processes can achieve similar or even superior results at a fraction of the usual energy consumption rates. According to Dr Shi, adopters of their novel technology can expect up to a fivefold reduction in energy usage when compared with available alternatives, since it can be applied without the need for pressure or heat.
|Technology||Operating Conditions||Energy Usage||Initial Investment||Results|
|Conventional Evaporators||Carried out under vacuum between 65°C and 80°C||Very high (more than 500KWh/m3)||High capital expenditure required||Significant loss of volatile and/or aromatic compounds, and degradation of nutrients that are sensitive to heat|
|Forward Osmosis||Carried out at atmospheric pressure, and room temperature or lower||Low (less than 100KWh/m3)||Low to medium capital expenditure required||High quality concentrate produced with minimal loss of compounds, and good retention of nutrients|
For manufacturers of F&B products like instant coffee, switching from thermal evaporation to FO processes also represents a stronger retention of flavours, aroma as well as nutritive properties, among others – improving overall product quality. The growth in interest from multinational enterprises to adopt Aromatec’s technology – as the duo shared – naturally came across as no surprise.
A variation of the FO modularised system built by Aromatec for the purpose of technology validation – as pictured – can concentrate up to 1,000 litres of aqueous products per day and is easily operable using a graphical user interface.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
While the concept of forward osmosis is rather straightforward, the same cannot be equally said for the membranes which enable the process. Consisting entirely of hollow fibres, they might seem unremarkably simple at the outset – so much so that they were jovially termed as “mee sua” by Singapore’s Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during a site visit, meaning vermicelli – but to judge the membranes by their appearance is an understatement of the challenges that had to be overcome while engineering their invention.
Intricate in design, any defect in a single membrane can cause a major decrease in performance of the overarching module, and detecting these flaws is a rigorous task. Unlike small-scale lab prototypes, commercial FO applications need to conform with universal standards set by industries, which often entails scaling up to as many as 12,000 membranes per 8-inch diameter module, compounding the risk of encountering technical glitches. Bringing the technology to market also requires effective control of manufacturing costs to sustain Aromatec’s competitiveness. Building a successful system – as remarked by Dr Shi – is hence only half the battle won, as ongoing developments ensue on a day-to-day basis to improve the quality and consistency of their technology.
The hollow fibre membranes used by Aromatec resemble straw-like structures upon a closer look.
When probed for the secret to the success they have achieved since their spinoff from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Prof Wang humbly describes herself only as an advisor to Aromatec, instead attributing much of their progress to the work ethic as well as capabilities of her protégé and founding partner, Dr Shi, who has – almost singlehandedly – built the core foundations of Aromatec within just two years.
Despite her wealth of experience in the field of membrane science, Prof Wang believes that the startup’s interests are best served in the hands of Dr Shi, whom she shares a working relationship spanning 15 years and counting with. He was also the key figure who championed the charge to bring Aromatec’s novel FO membrane technology from lab to market.
As for Prof Wang, her involvement takes on quite a different form. Having accumulated over 30 years of experience, she is well regarded as a leading water researcher and membrane scientist worldwide, and has helmed the Singapore Membrane Technology Centre (SMTC) at the Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) as its Director since 2012. In academia, she is editor-in-chief for the renowned Journal of Membrane Science, and also serves as the President’s Chair Professor of the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE), NTU.
Prof Wang (left) and Dr Shi (right) pictured beside one of Aromatec’s latest FO modularised systems.
A recent graduate of our Deeptech Accelerator, Dr Shi spoke fondly of the connections fostered through the programme curriculum – most notably with a global F&B conglomerate that has begun to leverage Aromatec’s technology after the successful completion of a proof-of-concept (POC) by the startup – and how he is applying the insights learnt to bolster their business development efforts as well as go-to-market strategy.
In fact, progress has been forthcoming enough that tests now take place recurringly within the lab to scale Aromatec’s solutions, and Dr Shi plans to keep pace by ramping up preparations to fundraise with a pre-Series A round set to commence at the end of 2021.
When asked if he has anything up his sleeves to convince reluctant clients or investors of the value that Aromatec can bring to the table, Dr Shi conveyed his point quite literally by bringing out a self-contained demonstration kit housed in a suitcase-like module – one that can perform POCs onsite and almost instantaneously.
If there are questions to be asked of Aromatec, the readiness of their technology looks certain not to be one of them.