DOW Chemical: The Next Night’s Watch? Desalinization is Coming…

How can DOW help address rising sea levels and less drinking water? (Word Count 648)

Exhibit 1



It’s well documented that climate change will have significant adverse impacts on agriculture, energy usage, ecosystems, transportation, human health and forests. However, water is the crux of the long term adverse consequences of climate change. If we can mitigate the effects of rising temperatures on water, we have the best chance at weathering the global warming storm. Humanity and the world’s ecosystems are dependent on dependable, clean drinking water and enough water to maintain production, transportation, agriculture, and energy. Players in these fields, to include farmers, energy producers, utilities, and manufacturers will need to compete for a finite amount of fresh water in a world with a population expanding by 1.13% per year. A major water issue will be a sea level rise, reducing the quality of fresh water in coastal areas and destructing the infrastructure we use to deliver water to the rest of the world. This will coincide with an increase in runoff and brackish water due to the major changes in natural water cycle that global warming triggers (see exhibit 2). With more mouths to feed and more production to match, we require a method of converting salt water into fresh water.

Exhibit 2water_cycle

Currently, the primary way to convert salt water into fresh water is through a process called desalinization. Unfortunately, desalinization is an extremely pricey fix due to intensive capital and production costs: it costs $2000 per acre foot at a desalinization plant compared to $1000 per acre foot at a fresh water treatment facility. As was the case with solar panels, the cost of desalinization must decrease for this option to be a viable solution for combating rising sea levels and increasing runoff in coastal regions.

One company that has a huge opportunity to address the desalinization issue is DOW Chemical. DOW already is a huge player in the energy market for climate change. DOW offers POWERHOUSE™ solar shingles as an innovative replacement for ordinary shingles. DOW  STYROFOAM™ is a worldwide leading insulator for  buildings, reducing the costs of heating a home by 20%. Finally, TERAFORCE™ Resin Coated Sand Technology has improved performance and sustainability in oil fracking operations by “utilizing short production cycles and low temperatures so that large volumes can be produced at a single production site” (DOW).

Although DOW has made headway in producing widgets in the energy sector, I believe the company’s innovation is required to further expand into the water desalinization industry as a bigger contributor to create a low-cost scalable product that can allow desalinization plants operate more efficiently on our coasts. DOW offers multiple products that provide reverse osmosis desalination, the process widely considered the only viable option for scalable water desalinization. DOWs product line FILMTEC™ currently offers many products to filter everything from seawater to brackish water. In California, a $1 billion desalinization plant which utilizes the same reverse osmosis technology is under construction in Carlsbad to provide roughly 7% of the drinking water in San Diego. Also, California is vetting 16 additional desalinization projects. These current projects still offer water to consumers at a price nearly double of what they are currently paying for fresh water, and FILMTEC technology cannot help lower this cost currently. How can DOW tap into this market? Are there any advances that can be made to lower the cost?

Researchers at MIT are currently trying to improve the membranes used in separating salt from water in reverse osmosis by using nanomaterials, or materials 100,000 x smaller than human hair. These smaller materials require less pressure to trap salt and allow water to pass through (picture an extremely thin straw blocking salt during the desalinization process).

DOW is in the middle of a merger with Dupont, and I believe DOWDupont will have the scale and resources to find the solution to our coastal water’s biggest question: can desalinization make economic sense to preserve the world’s drinking water in our coastal regions?

[1] USGCRP (2014). Georgakakos, A., P. Fleming, M. Dettinger, C. Peters-Lidard, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, K. Reckhow, K. White, and D. Yates. Ch. 3: Water Resources. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 69-112.
[2] CCSP (2008). The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources, and Biodiversity in the United States. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Backlund, P., A. Janetos, D. Schimel, J. Hatfield, K. Boote, P. Fay, L. Hahn, C. Izaurralde, B.A. Kimball, T. Mader, J. Morgan, D. Ort, W. Polley, A. Thomson, D. Wolfe, M. Ryan, S. Archer, R. Birdsey, C. Dahm, L. Heath, J. Hicke, D. Hollinger, T. Huxman, G. Okin, R. Oren, J. Randerson, W. Schlesinger, D. Lettenmaier, D. Major, L. Poff, S. Running, L. Hansen, D. Inouye, B.P. Kelly, L Meyerson, B. Peterson, and R. Shaw. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
[3] USGCRP (2014). Walsh, J., D. Wuebbles, K. Hayhoe, J. Kossin, K. Kunkel, G. Stephens, P. Thorne, R. Vose, M. Wehner, J. Willis, D. Anderson, S. Doney, R. Feely, P. Hennon, V. Kharin, T. Knutson, F. Landerer, T. Lenton, J. Kennedy, and R. Somerville. Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 19-67.
[4] IPCC (2014). Jimenez, B.E., T. Oki, N.W. Arnell, G. Benito, J.G. Conley, P. Döll, T Jiang, and S.S. Mwakalila. Freshwater resources. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L.White (eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
[5] CCSP (2009). Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Titus, J.G. (Coordinating Lead Author), Anderson, K.E., Cahoon, D.R., Gesch, D.B., Gill, S.K., Gutierrez, B.T., Thieler, E.R., Williams, S.J. (Lead Authors). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
[6] NRC (2008). Ecological Impacts of Climate Change. National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.
[7] CCSP (2008). Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-Sensitive Ecosystems and Resources. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Julius, S.H., J.M. West (eds.), J.S. Baron, B. Griffith, L.A. Joyce, P. Kareiva, B.D. Keller, M.A. Palmer, C.H. Peterson, and J.M. Scott (authors). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.

[8] “Climate Impacts on Water Resources.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016
[9] “Desalination Is an Expensive Energy Hog, but Improvements Are on the Way.” Public Radio International. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.


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Student comments on DOW Chemical: The Next Night’s Watch? Desalinization is Coming…

  1. Very interesting proposition of desalination methods to solve fresh water shortages. Reverse osmosis desalination, like you mentioned, is probably the most efficient way currently to filter water. Dow is well-positioned to enter the space given its expertise in chemical manufacturing, which is necessary for the fabrication of membranes needed for the method.
    In addition, there are new technologies coming out of MIT that bypass the membrane technology all together. Last year, I visited MIT lab working on using shock electrodialysis to separate salt water from fresh water. Essentially the system uses an electric shockwave within a stream of water, separating salty water and fresh water to opposite sides. No filters were needed. I wonder if this is something that Dow can additionally invest in to solve the world’s drinking problem, even at a potential high cost?

  2. Thanks for the article. It was very interesting to read about an industry I knew so little about! I think companies like DOW who can take advantage of opportunities to create solutions to our many environment problems like desalinization can do a lot to help us move the needle. Given that desalinization is so expensive today, I do hope that DOW doesn’t use this as an opportunity to just extract huge margins for its desalinization services and really does work to lower the cost so that both DOW, their customers, and our planet can benefit.

  3. It is great to read that DOW Chemical is taking steps to help increase the availability of fresh water through desalination. DOW Chemical has had its fair share of sustainability issues in the past, with safety issues related to its pesticides and its toxic waste sites. I’m curious to see if this desalination initiative will lead DOW to try to clean up their chemical environmental impact. Will DOW take this opportunity to analyze their chemical product’s impact on the global water supply and determine ways to minimize that impact?

    Being that DOW is an extremely large company with many major initiatives focused on oil fracking and solar, where does desalination fall on the list of DOW’s priorities? Fracking has grown to be a healthy industry and any fracking-related technology has the potential can be a major revenue driver for the first-movers in the industry. Will DOW lose sight of its desalination initiatives in order to pursue higher revenues tied to the fracking industry? If the merger with DuPont goes through, will these two major companies use their combined forces to make big waves in the desalination efforts or will desalination fall to the wayside?

  4. Phenomenally insightful and intriguing post! Thanks for sharing – it’s more than evident that DOW, particularly the pro forma Dow DuPont entity, has enormous influence in the global fight against climate change, simply given its absolute reach into the lives of consumers around the world.

    While looking into Dow’s sustainability initiatives a bit more, I found its 2025 Sustainability Goals document. Recognizing that Dow itself is a huge company, I felt like there were a ton of different goals they were looking to tackle in a variety of areas related to climate change. In light of that, I would absolutely echo parts of Naomi’s point above – how exactly do all of these initiatives fit together into one cohesive strategy or vision for a sustainable planet? How do they stack rank these various projects and allocate scarce financial capital and other resources – based on contribution to the bottom line or to reducing negative environmental impact?

  5. Dow seems to be very well positioned to lead the market when it comes to desalination (particularly reverse osmosis) technology. It will be really interesting to see what happens with the Carlsbad plant to figure out if this is a sustainable model. It makes me wonder what causes the costs of the plants to be so high, is it primarily driven by the filter material or is it driven by the energy required to force it through the material. Both of which seem to be helped by the advances in nano-filters. I hope that the public sector continues to invest in this infrastructure such that it continues to drive companies like Dow to invest in R&D that could ultimately make this technology competitive with basic water treatment facilities.

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