For a Mass. company, filtering the world’s water is a growth business

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / March 28, 2011

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WILMINGTON — When the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo needed to cleanse large volumes of waste water, it turned to Koch Membrane Systems Inc. in Wilmington — a company that is finding a growing market for its filtration technologies in places where development is running up against water supplies.

Last year, for the first time, water and waste-water systems accounted for more than half of Koch Membrane’s sales.

In Brazil, Koch’s polymer membranes are at the heart of a $150 million water reuse project that is one of the largest such projects in the Southern Hemisphere.

Koch was selected by Aquapolo Ambiental SA, a joint venture of Foz do Brasil, the environmental engineering company of Odebrecht SA, a construction and engineering group in Brazil, and Sao Paulo’s state water and sewer company.

The facility now under construction will filter up to 265 gallons per second of waste water from a sewage treatment plant.

The water will be used by local industrial customers, who will be able to draw less from the drinking water system — saving enough drinking water to supply about 600,000 residents.

Koch Membrane also sells filtration systems in China, Egypt, India, and Singapore; it expects water filtration to be at least 75 percent of its business by 2015.

The company, which has a factory complex off Route 38, is owned by billionaire brothers and MIT engineering graduates Charles and David Koch. It is a subsidiary of Koch Chemical Technology Group LLC, which in turn is a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc. in Wichita, Kan.

Koch Membrane was founded as a company called ABCOR in the 1960s by a professor and some students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Koch brothers invested early on, and by 1985 they had purchased the company and changed the name.

Koch Membrane does not release financial information but its literature cites sales of $110 million in 2008, a fraction of the $110 billion in revenue for all Koch brothers holdings.

Company products are used by the life sciences and food and beverage industries, as well as in general manufacturing.

Koch’s Puron membrane modules and MegaMagnum reverse osmosis units will be installed beginning in April at the Aquapolo plant, which is expected to be running by early 2012. Each provides a different level of filtration as waste water is passed through it, leaving solids and other components behind. MegaMagnums are manufactured in Wilmington, while Puron modules are made at a plant in Germany.

In February, Koch announced a deal to use its products to treat waste water from new resorts in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, so it can be used for irrigation, conserving the area’s limited supply of fresh water.

“Both waste water and desalination are things which, long term, have extremely strong fundamentals,’’ said Christopher Gasson, publisher of Global Water Intelligence magazine in London. “What they’re offering is something that is very much keyed into the challenges that nations are facing.’’

David Koch, known for his support of conservative political causes, was not available for comment, but Gasson said he is active in Koch Membrane, drawing on his background at MIT, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. “It’s really been sort of his first love all along,’’ Gasson said.

As for desalination, it will grow because countries are running out of clean water sources, a company executive said. But the high cost of reverse osmosis membrane systems that are used has been a barrier to new projects.

David Koch came up with the idea to build a system that uses a few large filter cartridges instead of many smaller units. That means a smaller footprint, fewer connections, and lower maintenance costs, Morrison said.

“What David Koch has done is to invest heavily over the last decade or so to give them a competitive advantage,’’ Gasson said. “At the moment, their market share is quite small, but it’s just really quite recently when all this investment and innovation has started to filter through into real products.’’

A typical filter system uses a “dead-end’’ process — the flow runs straight at the filter surface and the solids stop there, while the liquid passes through. The problem is, those systems tend to clog and degrade quickly. Koch produces “crossflow’’ systems that create a current perpendicular to the filter surface, to keep it clear longer and keep the process moving.

Each system requires the right porosity, the quality of filtering out particles by size. The polymer filters are customized to work with the temperature, pressure, and chemical makeup of the fluids they process. Membranes also come in tubular, flat, spiral-wound, and hollow-fiber shapes, depending on the fluid.

A Puron module looks like a cabinet full of white brushes. Each strand consists of a layer of Koch membrane molded with a braided hollow fiber. When the module is submerged, a slight vacuum is used to draw waste water in through the membrane, leaving suspended solids and bacteria on the outside, while the filtered water flows through the hollow core. A jet of air from the base of each cartridge moves the free-floating strands to keep them from clogging.

The combined system “cleans the water to a very high quality, and you don’t have to add anything to treat the water,’’ said Sergio Ribeiro, Koch’s manager for South America. More than 60 of the freezer-size modules will be used in the Aquapolo project.

Koch membranes made with dozens of different polymer “recipes’’ are used to de-bitter orange juice, filter Robert Mondavi wines, and produce cranberry products and frozen fish in Massachusetts.

They are also used in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

The Wilmington facility, the company’s home since the 1970s, employs 373 of its 690 employees. It has expanded in recent years to four buildings, including a high-tech manufacturing line and a research and technology center.

Gasson said Koch Membrane has less than 10 percent of a water-treatment membrane market that he estimates to be worth $1.2 billion worldwide, but has strong potential for growth.

“It’s going to be a growing segment of the market, but it’s only going to grow if the price is right,’’ Gasson said.