While recognizing that fresh water is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity, resulting in incredible growth in demand for desalination and other water-reuse technologies, not many U.S.-based stainless and stainless pipe and tube companies appear to be embracing the market.
"I'm not sure many domestic producers recognize the opportunity it presents," Dan Janikowski, energy sales manager at Plymouth Tube Co., said. "It is a big market, but mainly a global market. It isn't nearly as strong in the United States as elsewhere in the world. Maybe once the supply of usable water declines further (in the United States) and water prices start to go up, more people will pay attention to this market."
It is hard to quantify just how much the market could boost demand for stainless, titanium, copper-based alloys and other corrosion-resistant materials globally, especially for plants utilizing the reverse-osmosis desalination process that accounts for about 80 percent of new plant builds, Janikowski said. He could say only that reverse-osmosis plants, which use a membrane-based technology with piping made from super duplex stainless steels as well as fiber-reinforced plastics, use less stainless per gallon of water processed than thermal desalination (distillation) plants.
A large thermal desalination plant could use as much as 25 million feet of thin-walled tubing—made of either superferritic or duplex stainless, aluminum brass, copper-nickel or titanium. Putting that into perspective, Janikowski said that 25 million feet of tubing could be a year's production for a fairly large stainless tube mill.
Not all U.S. companies are oblivious to the potential for high-performance alloys for desalination and other water-treatment processes, however. "It is a nice market for our industry," said Dan Greenfield, a spokesman for Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI), Pittsburgh, which makes many of the duplex stainless and titanium alloys used in the application. "The whole area of water—desalination, clean water, public water systems—is clearly growing. In fact, some people think of it as the next oil."
But Janikowski said it is mainly European stainless steel producers that recognize the potential of the global market for desalination plants, which grew about 45 percent during the past five years and is likely to grow at an even greater rate going forward.
ThyssenKrupp Stainless AG said that "drinking water is the source of all life and demand for this rare and precious 'blue gold' is rising constantly and can barely be met by existing natural freshwater resources." In an effort to find a solution to "increasing global water scarcity," Thyssen-Krupp's various subsidiaries have engaged in a "cross-company knowledge-sharing" effort.
"We are making full use of the group's value chain to provide mutual support, which results in (the) transfer of know-how," said Markus Holz, managing director of ThyssenKrupp Titanium GmbH. Other ThyssenKrupp units participating in the cooperative effort include ThyssenKrupp VDM GmbH and ThyssenKrupp Nirosta GmbH.
Phil Lehr, manager of nickel alloys and export sales at Swepco Tube Corp., Clifton, N.J., acknowledged that his company hadn't done much recently—at least not mill direct—in the desalination market, but he doesn't rule out doing so in the future. "There is a lot of potential in that market," he said, but his company has been concentrating on other markets, such as oil and gas and electricity generation, for the past several years.
David G. Pudelsky, vice president of strategic marketing at RathGibson Inc., Lincolnshire, Ill., said his company isn't currently participating in the desalination market per se, although during the past 18 months to two years it has done "significant project work" for the water-treatment market out of its Janesville, Wis., facility and is looking at the possibility of taking the plunge into desalination as well. A decision is expected around late summer to early fall.
Products that RathGibson sells would be a good match for the desalination market, including large weldments, large piping sections and fitting elbows, Pudelsky said, and the fact that RathGibson is a global player is a plus. He said the company already has offices in Bahrain; Shanghai, China; Seoul, South Korea; and Perth, Australia, and is about to add offices in Europe and South America. Most of those regions are big growth areas for desalination, he said. "We want to talk to experts, engineering firms and other local people before we make a decision."