Founded in 1991, the Australian desalination company Osmoflo is active all around the world, serving clients in a dizzying variety of municipal, energy, industrial, mining, and food and drink applications. With its flexible, technology-independent approach to solving problems and its rapid-deployment emergency facilities, Osmoflo can solve all sorts of problems wherever on the globe they occur.
In this interview, Carmine Ciccocioppo, the chief operating officer (COO) of Osmoflo, speaks with Municipal Water LeaderManaging Editor Joshua Dill about how his company’s technology is deployed around the world.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Carmine Ciccocioppo: I have been involved in the water industry in various project delivery, operational, commercial and leadership roles for around 25 years. It is an industry that really interests me, and one that I am passionate about. Previously, I was director of the Australian Water Association, the peak body for water professionals in Australia, for around 8 years.
I joined Osmoflo in 2010 as general manager for operations to look after Osmoflo’s operations and maintenance (O&M) and after-sale-service functions. Since that time, the O&M division of Osmoflo has continued to expand and grow in capacity and capability. I was appointed to the role of COO of Osmoflo’s global business in early 2019, and as part of that role I am responsible for all of the business’s end-to-end operational functions from sales and marketing to engineering and project delivery, as well as our rentals and operations divisions.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the history of the company.
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Osmoflo was founded by Marc and Annie Fabig in 1991. From relatively humble beginnings with only two employees, Osmoflo has continued to grow steadily and is now the largest Australian-headquartered designer, builder, and operator of desalination projects. It has offices in the Middle East, South America, and India. From 2011 to 2018, Marubeni Corporation of Japan was a minority shareholder, and in 2016, Hitachi Zosen Corporation of Japan (HITZ) became a majority shareholder. Today, Osmoflo is a wholly owned subsidiary of HITZ, which supports Osmoflo’s pursuit of desalination and advanced water reuse projects across the globe.
Since its establishment, Osmoflo has specialized in the design and delivery of almost 500 membrane-based water treatment plants (including microfiltration, ultrafiltration [UF], brackish water reverse osmosis [RO], seawater RO, and electrodeionization plants) ranging in capacity up to 56 million liters per day (MLD), or 14.8 million gallons per day (MGD). In addition, Osmoflo operates and maintains over 80 of those plants and facilities around the world.
The company’s employee numbers vary depending on the level of project activity at any particular point in time, but typically range between 220 and 270.
Joshua Dill: What are Osmoflo’s main services?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Osmoflo’s main services include the delivery of both customized and preengineered water treatment solutions. We offer flexibility through a range of financing and commercial delivery options, including build-own-operate/transfer, design-build-operate, short- term rental, engineering and procurement, full turnkey contracting (EPC), or EPC plus O&M. We also provide O&M service agreements to suit the individual needs of our clients, and also operate many non-Osmoflo built plants. We can provide 24/7 remote monitoring and control services using our global operations control centers, which assist in the monitoring of plants across the globe with our proprietary software, Plant Connect. We also provide plant rental and emergency water treatment solutions using a global rental fleet of approximately 70 assets. This includes our Desal Now range of large-capacity emergency water treatment solutions, which are ready for immediate deployment and can treat up to 50,000 cubic meters (13.2 million gallons) per day.
Joshua Dill: Who are Osmoflo’s clients?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Our target markets include the general industrial, resources, and municipal sectors, with specific focus on water treatment plants of a capacity greater than 100,000 liters (26,400 gallons) per day. These broad industrial and resource market sectors can be further broken down into oil and gas; power, including coal, gas, and renewables; mining, including coal, iron ore, lithium, uranium, copper, lead, and zinc; petrochemicals; water used in heavy industry; and food and beverage. Osmoflo’s clients typically include large blue chip players in the above sectors, such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Coca-Cola Amatil, Carlton & United Breweries, Inpex, Santos, Bechtel, Roy Hill, FMG, and Western Australia Water Corporation.
Joshua Dill: Where does Osmoflo operate?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Osmoflo has its global headquarters at Burton in Adelaide, Australia, with local domestic offices in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, and Darwin. The company also has offices in Dubai; Oman; Pune, India; and Santiago, Chile. Osmoflo’s operational plants are scattered across the globe as far afield as northern Chile, the Marshall Islands, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Osmoflo is not currently delivering projects in the United States, but we have delivered to the United States several times and collaborated with various water industry partners there. The United States is a potentially attractive market for Osmoflo—we are interested in some of the focus technology areas in the United States, such as minimal liquid discharge, and in using our Osmoflo Brine Squeezer in applications around produced water and minimalizing discharge for inland applications.
Joshua Dill: Tell us about the process of water evaluation and the selection of treatment technology.
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Innovation and best-for-project integration of technology has been at the heart of Osmoflo since its inception. One of Osmoflo’s core strengths is
its technology independence and the fact that it has an enormous industry network and knowledge of the available process technology that can be applied in particular applications. Osmoflo always takes a holistic, whole-of-life view rather than simply focusing on a least-capital-cost approach, which is often suboptimal from a whole-of-life cost perspective. By constantly working with water that is challenging, whether because of physical, organic, or chemical quality, Osmoflo is continuously developing new water treatment methods and technologies.
Joshua Dill: What exactly is technology independence?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Many of our larger global competitors have developed their own in-house technologies, and their primary focus is on promoting and selling this equipment to their customers. Osmoflo’s primary capability and core competency, on the other hand, is using all available technological and process innovations across the entire market to deliver water treatment solutions for its clients that provide the best value for the money spent and the highest reliability. It’s not about trying to fit a particular piece of equipment to a problem that it may not be well suited to. It’s about really trying to understand a particular client’s water treatment needs and then using our experience, our trusted suppliers, and our industry partners to identify and use the technology and process equipment that best matches that need. We go to great lengths to ensure that we are aware of the latest technologies in the market, and we look for opportunities to test and pilot them or introduce them into the right applications. That is what it means to say that Osmoflo is technology independent.
Joshua Dill: What is an example of difficult-to-treat water, and how did Osmoflo treat it?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: One example is a project we did for a client in regional Victoria that is one of the oldest dairy processors in Australia. Our client had recently increased its cheese production by 30 percent, resulting in the production of more wastewater. As the increased volume was above its discharge capacity, it needed to consider treatment options for the additional water. In early 2017, the client contacted Osmoflo to request a 500-cubic- meter-per-day (132,000-gallon-per-day) rental plant to process UF permeate from whey processing. In addition, a 1.2-MLD (317,000-gallon-per-day) rental solution was sought to treat its dairy waste so that it would be suitable for onsite irrigation and reuse. Our personnel conducted benchtop testing to see if they could treat the water, which had high biochemical oxygen demand and contained lactose whey and other particulates. Following this initial testing, we were engaged to undertake site pilot testing with a small microfiltration plant and the Osmoflo Brine Squeezer. Osmoflo was subsequently engaged to provide the full-scale rental plant.
Joshua Dill: What are Osmoflo’s emergency water supply services, and what is an example of their deployment?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Osmoflo has one of the largest fleets of emergency water treatment equipment of any company, ranging from seawater and brackish water desalination plants, membrane filtration plants, wastewater plants, chemical dosing plants, and other ancillary plants necessary to complement an emergency full turnkey solution. An example of their deployment is a project Osmoflo completed in Cape Town, South Africa. The City of Cape Town requested the water treatment project to mitigate the shortage of potable water during one of the region’s worst droughts on record. The project involved the supply, installation, and commissioning of a fully containerized 2-MLD (528,000-gallon-per-day) seawater reverse osmosis and multimedia filtration plant. This was delivered under a rental contract for a minimum duration of 24 months. With a tight delivery schedule of just 8 weeks, Osmoflo’s capability for fast deployment of equipment meant the plant was delivered and producing potable water in line with the required schedule. The desalination plant was operational by March 2018, with Osmoflo also providing initial O&M support prior to handing operations over to its local partner. The plant consisted of a 7-by-40-foot containerized plant, which was shipped from Osmoflo’s storage facility in Dubai. The plant travelled a distance of approximately 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) to Cape Town in 30 days.
Joshua Dill: How do your global markets differ from each other?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: In Australia, our major markets tend to be in the resources sector, particularly large mining and oil and gas operations, as well as the power generation and food and beverage sectors. In the Middle East, the market tends to be more crowded and competitive. There are a lot of well-established local and international competitors and the dominant markets are municipal, power, and oil and gas opportunities, rather than mining or food and beverage companies. In Southeast Asia, there are also fewer mining-sector opportunities, but there are more opportunities in the municipal and general industrial spaces. In general, markets in the Middle East and Southeast Asia are quite competitive. We need to pick and choose our opportunities strategically and carefully, limiting our involvement to opportunities where Osmoflo can differentiate itself using its technology and intellectual property.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about Osmoflo’s remote monitoring and control services.
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Around 20 years ago, Osmoflo recognized the fact that, certainly in the Australian context, with its high price of labor for continuous operational plant attendance, a more cost-effective approach was needed for the competent operation, process monitoring, and control of our plants. Osmoflo’s plants in Australia are hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers from the nearest populated centers. That drove Osmoflo down the path of developing in-house technology that allowed it not only to monitor the facilities but also to remotely control them. It developed its in-house supervisory control and data acquisition software, Plant Connect, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, we’ve added more and more plants to that stable of remote monitoring and control. It gives us a potent and cost-effective way to assist our clients in monitoring those plants, no matter where they happen to be on the planet, on a 24/7 basis. We’ve put a lot effort into ensuring that our control center operators have industry-best credentials, experience, and capabilities. We have two control centers that operate in tandem, not independently. One is located here in Adelaide, Australia; the other is located at our Dubai office. That gives us good redundancy and gives us the capability to switch between them as we require.
Joshua Dill: What trends do you see in the desalination business today?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: The major trend in the last decade has been a strong shift away from thermal desalination technologies to membrane-based desalination, primarily using RO. That’s one of the large trends that drove HITZ, which was a dominant player for decades in the global thermal desalination market, to acquire Osmoflo and use its membrane treatment process knowledge and capabilities within its broader global water business. Another trend we see is a growing focus on businesses’ carbon footprints and energy efficiency. Clients, especially in locations with high energy costs, are focused on the energy efficiency, recurrent costs, and carbon footprint of their desalination solutions. Energy efficiency is constantly improving due to advances in membrane and energy recovery technology.
The third large trend across the broader desalination market, especially in applications that do not involve seawater, relates to brine management. Regulators around the world are increasing their scrutiny of the way organizations are handling and disposing of their brine and salt. They are generally imposing tighter restrictions and placing more pressure on desalination facilities to minimize the volumes of the high-salinity waste that they are generating. Demand for cost effective technologies that help companies reduce that brine stream, especially for non-seawater applications, is growing—the growing demand for Osmoflo’s Brine Squeezer technology is a good example of this.
Joshua Dill: What other new technologies is Osmoflo developing?
Carmine Ciccocioppo: Another exciting technology that we feel has enormous potential is our acid mine drainage (AMD) treatment technology, which we refer to as our AMD Squeezer. At the end of mines’ lifespans, owners are often left with highly acidic water in their mines and few cost-effective ways of dealing with it. Typically, neutralizing that water has involved the expensive addition of lots of chemicals, such as lime. The levels of sulfate and gypsum in that water can make membrane treatments difficult. We are working at the moment with a couple of our clients in Australia on an adaptation of our Brine Squeezer technology for waters with pH as low as 2 and very high gypsum levels, which involves interstage precipitation of salts with very high scaling potential. It’s a multistage RO process that treats and concentrates that AMD water; between those RO stages, we’re treating the brine through an innovative seeding and mixing process and dropping out gypsum and other salts. Our ultimate aim is to use this technology to concentrate the brine and dramatically lower the residual volume of AMD water.