An Interview with Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Winner Dr. Andrew Benedek
In the most recent interview for the "Executive Watch" column in Water & Wastewater International (WWi) magazine (April/May 2008), we had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Andrew Benedek, a native of Hungary, former Canadian professor, founder and past CEO of Zenon Environmental (now part of GE Water & Process Technologies) and the winner of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which will be presented in June at activities during the first Singapore International Water Week events...
By Carlos David Mogollon,
Managing Editor for Water & Wastewater International and Industrial WaterWorld
In the most recent interview for the "Executive Watch" column in Water & Wastewater International (WWi) magazine ("Daring to Dream of a Better World", April/May 2008), we had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Andrew Benedek, a native of Hungary, former Canadian professor, founder and past CEO of Zenon Environmental (now part of GE Water & Process Technologies) and, now also, the winner of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, which will be presented in June at activities during the first Singapore International Water Week events. Dr. Benedek was involved in PUB Singapore's NEWater projects to recycle municipal and industrial wastewater to give Singapore greater water independence, using ultrafiltration technology pioneered by Zenon as pretreatment for advanced reverse osmosis treatment to purify the water back to a level that made it drinkable again. That's something that he feels will need to be revisited and eventually required back in his current home of San Diego as well as elsewhere in the world as population growth, development and the impacts of climate change affect our water resources. Catching up with him in between a busy schedule that he still keeps since selling his company two years ago, we find that he's helping to research the effects of global warming on the world's oceans at the Scripps Instititue of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA, as well as pushing forward with his new company, UTS Biogas, near Germany, which focuses on recapturing wastewater biogas as a renewable energy resource that's much more sustainable than ethanol in his view. For the full interview, read on:
WWi: You were just recently named the winner of the inaugural water prize that's to be given during the first Singapore International Water Week to be held in June. This is the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize. I was hoping if you could start out by giving us a little bit of background on your career. You're the founder of Zenon Environmental, which was recently purchased by GE Water & Process Technologies.
Benedek: Two years ago.
WWi: So, I'd like us to discuss a little bit about what you've been doing since and also the changes have occurred in the industry since the start of your career in the water and wastewater industry.
Benedek: Okay, would you like me to start at the beginning.
Benedek: I graduated in chemical engineering from McGill University in Canada in 1966. I did summer jobs in the petroleum industry and it's those jobs that convinced me that something had to be done about the water pollution problem.
WWi: Why? What did you see that impressed this on you?
Benedek: Well, basically, gross pollution, untreated organic waste going into rivers.
WWi: Raw discharge.
Benedek: And there also was a total lack of knowledge of what to do with it. It had gotten to the point of rivers catching fire. You may have heard of the Cuyahoga River...
WWi: In Cleveland, yes. Were these jobs while you were in college or high school?
Benedek: In college. And post-college, I almost stayed with Exxon. But I decided I did want to go to graduate school and learn about wastewater treatment and what to do about it, so, I got a Ph.D. in this field from the University of Washington. And, then, I thought that the way to make a difference in this field was to become an academic and do research, and I took a job in Canada at McMaster University where I eventually became the head of the Water Research Group looking for solutions to the water problems. But, by then, it had become a big issue in North America and everybody was trying to find a solution. The EPA was funding sewage plants...
WWi: This is about what time?
Benedek: I'm talking about the '70s.
WWi: So, this is after the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
WWi: What were some of the things you were involved with in that effort?
Benedek: The big effort in those days was priority pollutants. I don't know if you remember...
WWi: It's a little before my time. I'll be 45 this year.
Benedek: My apologies. I had no idea what age you are. That's why I asked. I should have asked if you were alive back then, probably. Well, in any case, in the '70s, the issues were twofold. One was about nutrients going to lakes and rivers. And the second issue was these exotic chemicals called priority pollutants. And, for the latter, my research at McMaster was essentially all focused on activated carbon absorption, which the EPA thought at the time would be the revolution in wastewater treatment.
WWi: What sort of things were you doing?
Benedek: I was basically working with Ph.D. students, writing papers and, of course, teaching. Then, in 1980, one of my friends from France and I went to a conference on activated carbon absorption. And when we left that conference, we said: "Look, this is never going to be the solution to the world's water problems." Together, we decided that it was going to be membranes.
WWi: Which were just emerging in the U.S. or North American consciousness as a potential technology, yes?
Benedek: Well, they were emerging strictly as a desalination device. There was some initial desalination project already in the field. So, it was actually an existing technology, but in the very early stages of its development.
WWi: Okay. Who was the friend and what happened after that?
Benedek: Well, my friend's name is François Fiessinger. He went back to France to work within his own company, which is currently called SUEZ. They started doing their research and I also followed the idea by forming Zenon and focusing on membranes.
WWi: So this is how Zenon Environmental was formed. What year officially did that occur?
Benedek: It was 1980. And, at that point, I immediately gave my notice to the university because I didn't want to try to be doing two things at the same time.
WWi: How long had you been teaching?
Benedek: Ten years. I started in '70 and finished in '80.
WWi: When Zenon was sold two years ago to GE Water, how much had it grown to?
Benedek: It had grown from nothing and one employee to 1,500 employees and from a company that was doing something that everybody thought was kind of crazy to the technology becoming the revolutionary force in the field after 100 years of improvement but very little evolution.
WWi: I recall being in on an interview with some GE executives at the time that they bought Zenon and it was somewhat perceived as the feather in the cap in terms of getting the company into what at that time was the hot thing within the membrane field, which was membrane bioreactors (MBR) and ultrafiltration that weren't necessarily in the GE toolbox up to that point. They were very well attracted to a lot of the technological advances that Zenon had made. I recall there was a certain financial crunch going on at the time as well. Comment for me if you could about that period and what it meant to be able to build the company up to that point where it was obviously attractive to a number of potential buyers.
Benedek: You're asking me to comment on what it meant to me that it was important enough to attract a company as big as GE? Well, it just meant that we really had to make a decision. I didn't consider it an honor. I thought it's obvious that we're the leader. At that time, we were four times bigger than any of our competitors, which included Siemens. We were clearly on the right track. The world was kind of opening up to us. Inevitably, if you're doing well, you're going to attract attention. So, the issue for us was are we going to keep at it or are we going to accept somebody's offer. Bear in mind, though, this is a public company, so when an offer comes in that's significantly above market price, these days you have to accept it unless someone offers a larger amount. Once a company -- a bonafide company like GE -- makes an offer, you don't have much of a choice.
WWi: It's a fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders.
Benedek: Right. And, at the same time, you see both sides of the equation. You see the challenges and opportunities you face. You also see that it's one of the most respected companies in the world. They may well be a good parent for this technology.
WWi: I would imagine also that it's sort of a difficult decision because it's sort of like giving up a child.
Benedek: It's more than giving up a child. It's giving up yourself because, when you're being 26 years with a company and you're the leader of that company from the beginning, you become the company. You're the symbol of the company. You spend much more time with the company than you do with anything else, including your children unfortunately.
WWi: What were some of the notable milestones for you in those 26 years?
Benedek: The first biggest step for us was when we hit up on the idea of putting a membrane into water without pressure. Prior to that, it was the membrane bioreactor -- I'm sorry, but I'll go a little backwards here. The first big step was focusing on commercializing membrane bioreactors. Then, to achieve that better on a bigger scale, we invented ZeeWeed, which is this pressure-vessel-less system where a membrane hung in the water without a pressure vessel.
WWi: Prior to this, there was always a series of banks of pressure vessels in varied configurations.
Benedek: Exactly, including us. For membrane bioreactors, we were using tubes and pressurizing these tubes, which were very costly in terms of capital and energy. So, then the challenge was getting the ZeeWeed right, developing the international distribution and, above all, getting the American market right. We had to develop a good relationship with the representatives, support them well, support our clients well -- you know, all those steps that nobody ever talks about. But those are the steps that make the difference between somebody who invented something that went nowhere and somebody who invented something and made a good company from it.
WWi: At the point where the company was sold, how big was it?
Benedek: It was heading toward the $300 million mark.
WWi: That's a significant chunk of revenue. How broadly based were you? Describe for me your market presence, if you could.
Benedek: We were in a typical year, close to 60% U.S.-based.
WWi: Because of proximity and natural affinities for the market here?
Benedek: Also due to the wonderful openness in America in accepting new technologies. You do have to work at it at first, but once you develop the right technology and coupled to that the right support for it -- things just take off, especially in California.
WWi: Which is why I assume you moved to California.
Benedek: Yes, this was our major market, the Southwest.
WWi: When did you move to California?
Benedek: Two years ago.
WWi: And where were you prior to that you were living in?
Benedek: Actually, I was living just prior to that in Hungary. I was synchronizing the European business because it was getting us about 20-25% of our volume, but it could've given us a lot more and I wanted to get that base set up properly.
WWi: Was it growing more rapidly at that point?
Benedek: No, that's why I had to make improvements. And, in fact, from California, I was looking forward to doing the other 10-15% that we had in Asia. I wanted to strengthen that too, because I knew it was going to grow dramatically.
WWi: What do you see in Asia?
Benedek: You see developing nations -- rapidly developing nations -- and China, in particular, was adopting membrane technology. Around that time that the company got sold, we had the Chinese Olympics using this technology on both ends of the village, on the south and north sides. There's a sewage treatment plant there that will be using it to recycle water for the Dragon Lake, which is in the middle of the Olympic Village.
WWi: I believe we ran an article last year about use of ZeeWeed membranes also on rainwater harvesting off of what I believe they call the Bird's Nest, the huge Olympic stadium.
Benedek: Yes, China has gone towards membranes in a significant way and, as you know, that market grows very quickly, so I really wanted to make sure we well-positined there. Prior to that, Singapore was a big market for us.
WWi: What were some of the challenges you saw in running Zenon and growing it?
Benedek: The most important challenge for me was always internal. And that was twofold: one, having the right people and growing our people; and, second, making sure that the right end result comes out. Even with the right people, if you don't provide leadership, sometimes a new product can sit on the shelf and it's not adopted. In our business, because we became such a major player in terms of the technology, we couldn't afford that (because of the competition). At the time the company got sold, just to put everything in perspective, our membrane market share then was the largest after USFilter in America. And USFilter was selling hundreds of products. I made one kind of product. Within that product, we were by far the largest -- but my point is it became such an important market.
WWi: The specialization you had gave you an advantage because you weren't distracted by other issues.
Benedek: Yes, that's also true but, given that, now you have the problem of people trying to catch you. And the only way to stay ahead in a technological market is the same way you stay ahead when you make computer chips -- you just keep improving the computer chips. It was very important to not only have the right people but also to get those people doing the right thing technologically and keep the company progressing.
WWi: You mentioned that Siemens was one of your primary competitors and we recently had an interview with the new executive at its water division. He mentioned that one of the major challenges he sees going forward is going to be the issue of energy efficiency and reducing the cost of the technology. Would you agree with that?
WWi: You've just won this major water prize -- congratulations, by the way -- so what are some of the challenges you see going forward not just for this particular market, but for the industry as a whole?
Benedek: When you say market, you mean the membrane market? Well, as far as that, those words by the new Siemens guy are correct. It needs to continue the pattern it's on (of improving energy efficiency and cost). And, while I was in charge at Zenon, both of those things were reduced every year by at least 15% on the average. Hopefully, that can be continued -- maybe if not at the same rate, then close to that. This will mean that membranes will become a very cost-effective, reliable and low-energy way of handling water and wastewater. Although, there is still a challenge on the wastewater side in energy, there was and there still is.
WWi: You're dealing with more bulk solids correct?
Benedek: Not so much that. It's the fact that you need air to keep the membranes clean, which is over and above what you may need just for oxygen.
WWi: And that raises the energy requirements of the system...
Benedek: Yes, so I think it will remain a little bit higher in energy, but it's not an important issue if you're not looking for more than secondary treatment. Once you start looking for a higher level of treatment, then membranes will use the most energy and the highest quality. The issue with membranes is finding a way to handle the water of poor countries of the world. I think this technology is ideal for poor countries.
WWi: Why so?
Benedek: That's because it's able to reuse water, it's able to treat very bad water, and it's able to do it with very little chemicals. It guarantees quality as long as you can design it into the way you do it, so you don't have to have a tremendous amount of maintenance. It's high technology that's very simple to use, much like a computer chip.
WWi: There's always been somewhat of an issue in poorer countries in being able to maintain the technology domestically with local expertise. That's not a challenge.
Benedek: That's what I'm trying to say. I think it's possible to design the units in such a way that they're less of a challenge than conventional treatment. Conventional treatment needs a really good operator to make it work. Frankly, this technology -- again, if it's set up properly -- doesn't need an operator at all. Allow me a story -- one of the first membrane bioreactor plants we installed was in a landfill treating leachate in Holland. When we sent some people over to see these plants because we wanted to get a reference, they asked us not to go with them. They went to the plant and they went to a few other plants. They said everything was great except that, on this particular one, the lights were blinking. It was working, but seemed to need some maintenance. We checked into it and it turns out the operator had left for the Himalayas and hadn't told anyone he hadn't been there for two months.
WWi: He went to hike K2... and there were no problems with the system or water quality?
Benedek: No. That's what I mean by the nature of the technology. It was still treating the water and the water was still good quality. Whereas if you have a conventional plant, you need an operator to treat it all the time and there can be upsets and bulking, etc. We also created a little unit that's very good and that treats the water going into a house or for a village. It's also essentially a low-maintenance unit.
WWi: I believe there's some projects going on significantly within the Zenon home unit system in China and Pakistan on a village-wide basis.
Benedek: Yes, GE is starting to move this product. Anyway, then the challenge becomes -- in addition to always of course getting lower cost or energy -- is management of using the technology, particularly in developing nations. That is a huge challenge in every area, but certainly in the water field. There needs to be progress in that.
WWi: What suggestions would you have in that regard?
Benedek: I think it needs some support from things like the World Bank, which I have been talking with to set up ways in which they could maybe help less developed nations.
WWi: They do a lot of funding for water and wastewater projects worldwide.
Benedek: They do, but not necessarily for these kind of smaller projects that I'm talking about. I think we need to, in this century, working together on a global basis. We need to use our global agencies such as the UN, World Bank, etc...
WWi: Coordinating with other agencies such as the Asian Development Bank, EBRD or ExIm Bank, health agencies like the WHO and NGOs...
Benedek: Exactly, and those in turn coordinating with less developed nations, giving them help and advice. If we can find the right way of doing this, it will make a huge difference for the water problems of the world. I think that, on every front, I'm hoping that we go to an era of global cooperation because, if we don't, water and the environment generally is going to get worse and worse. Global warming is going to get worse and worse. And we won't be able to sustain life as we know it.
WWi: One of the issues you'd mentioned earlier was Asia and how rapidly some of the nations there are developing -- and I noted in the announcement of you winning this award that, in Singapore, some of the Zenon membranes were used in the NEWater project by PUB, the Public Utilities Board, there. That's another way these issues can be addressed. It's not the small village way, but it's one in which some of the negative by-products of that growth, which in turn affect climate change or impact our ecosystems, can be addressed and reduced. And it's a way in which these countries that are looking to move up the economic ladder on a global basis can address some of the huge environmental problems that have erupted. Particularly in the last few years, we've seen a lot of reports in China over pollution. There's concern even this summer with respect to the Olympics, although largely focused on air pollution. Talk to me if you could a bit about the Singapore connection with the membranes.
Benedek: I started this story earlier, it happened in California. California recognized that it's going to run short of water. It's running short of water right now. And you guys in Arizona aren't going to send your extra allotment here.
WWi: From the Colorado River, no, especially since the U.S. Geological Survey predicts ongoing drought in the Southwest.
Benedek: Global warming isn't helping on that front either. Anyway, California -- let me see if I have the dates right -- at least 10 years ago, started thinking about recycling water on a large scale. Orange County is one. San Diego is another. San Diego's experience is particularly painful because I live here. They were actually experimenting with our technology, membrane bioreactor technology, to recycle wastewater. They termed it "Toilet to the Tap" and the whole project fell apart.
WWi: They picked the wrong name, from what I understand.
Benedek: It was a terrible name. But, in the meantime, Singapore and Orange County were looking at doing tertiary treatment. Here, they were looking at membrane bioreactors. Regardless, there was a need and Singapore was pressing ahead.
WWi: The necessity outweighed the distaste for the issue.
Benedek: They said, "Look, we should really check and see if it's possible to recycle water. If we could, then we could gain water independence for ourselves in the long run."
WWi: Which is important for Singapore, because it's been dependent on Malaysia for water otherwise.
Benedek: Yes, but it's also because they like to do things correctly. They took a project, a really great guy, this fellow called Ong Choon Nam, who was an expert in health effects from water had this study and the vision for this whole thing came through a man named Can Gee Taw, who was the chairman of PUB in Singapore at the time.
WWi: I might be remiss in asking also, due to your accent, where are you from originally?
Benedek: Hungary. I was born in Hungary.
WWi: How did you get to Canada?
Benedek: I escaped. I walked 46 kilometers after the Russians came back in the '56 revolt period. I walked together with my uncle. My mother was the only parent alive; she stayed behind. Eventually, I was moving to Canada to live with a different aunt.
WWi: When you first moved from Hungary, where did you go?
WWi: How old were you?
WWi: That's quite a little story. You've probably seen the movie and read the book, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," then?
Benedek: Of course.
WWi: A fabulous movie.
Benedek: A fabulous book. Milan Kundera is one of my favorite, if not my favorite writers.
WWi: One of my mother's as well.
Benedek: Has she read "Immortality"?
WWi: I don't know if she has.
Benedek: That's my favorite book by him.
WWi: I'll have to get her a copy.
Benedek: I like it even more than "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
WWi: You can't get a better recommendation. What year did you move to Canada, then?
WWi: Was that shortly after leaving Hungary?
WWi: So, you're from Prague?
Benedek: Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
WWi: Ah, yes, I got it confused with the book we were discussing. Thank you for that story. I'd sort of interrupted you when you were talking about Singapore.
Benedek: They had two years of very thorough study using the best laboratories of the world to see what the impact of recycled water would be. They concluded that it would not be harmful in any way. But this is very highly treated water, using double membrane technology. And then they felt comfortable in doing this.
WWi: By "double membrane" do you mean "two-stage"?
Benedek: Yes, well, ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis really.
Benedek: So, it really is a very high level of treatment. And then they went ahead and did it in a Singapore way. You know, what takes us forever sometimes, they had done in a year. One of the very large plants, they took to build it a year and I was used to three, four or five years doing the same kind of plant in America. And lo and behold it was done in less than a year.
WWi: I recall seeing some of the construction photos on that facility and it was indeed kind of incredible how fast they built that.
Benedek: Yes, well, they do everything like that. So anyway, they moved ahead. In the meantime, I'm sitting here in San Diego reading the newspaper and now you're talking five years after Singapore doing this... Maybe before I get to that I should tell you that what's really interesting is everybody is thinking recycled water. The question now is how well you treat it and not whether it's recycled or not. And the other question is to what extent it's being recycled.
WWi: It's also asked how much does it cost to recycle it?
Benedek: Yes, but in the end for California, the issue is are you going to treat seawater or are you going to treat your sewage properly and recycle it. If you look at it that way, it's an awful lot cheaper to do the second and you also take care of the waste problem.
Benedek: So, I think it's a sin to waste water in California.
WWi: Or Arizona...
WWi: Or any arid area...
Benedek: Even moreso probably. Arizona doesn't have the population quite yet for the demand to be there, though.
Benedek: It's coming, it's coming. I had a hard time recently when I was reading recently that now, in 2008, when my neighbors are having to cut water back, they're still fighting at city hall in San Diego over water reuse. Even the council has been forced to look at it once again and the mayor has tried everything to try to stop it. Do you understand how strange it is for me to be sitting here and reading that in the city where I live, while at the same time getting the Lee Kuan Yew award.
WWi: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would imagine that California would follow a similar pattern as in Arizona in the sense that: oftentimes, the issue of water reuse in an area where there are low resources but high development is one of growth being almost intertwined in there -- which changes it from being an issue of water reuse to being an issue of politics.
Benedek: Yes. I see what you mean. I'm not sure where I stand, but I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't very similar and have an awful lot of things involved. But, fundamentally, it's also a psychological perception. Now, in developed countries, other than Singapore, recycling is done surreptitiously. It's done all over America. Our plants recharge into the ground and a neighbor takes it out a mile away.
WWi: Or the water flows down the Ohio or the Mississippi or the Missouri and every city along the way treats the water and discharges it and treats it again...
Benedek: Yes, inadequately usually. That's a little more obvious. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is water reuse is only possible in America -- for psychological reasons -- if you put it in the ground first and people don't realize that it's been recycled. I guess in the river they should realize it's recycled because it's so obvious, but people get away with that because of how long it's been.
WWi: We're probably getting a little long on this interview -- and I apologize for that -- but, if you could, I'd love to know what you're feelings are about receiving the award.
Benedek: I think it's truly a great honor, the kind that comes on top of having a really fortunate privilege to be a leader in this field. I think we've revolutionized the way water is treated everywhere and we'll continue to do so. I feel I've been very lucky to have done this and it's very nice to get not a recognition for my company but recognition for me personally, particularly since I don't have the company anymore.
Benedek: I didn't get any personal recognition...
WWi: When you were running the company?
Benedek: Yes. The company got every award in the book, including the Swedish industrial award, the best middle-size company internationally in the world award. It won the Stevie Award. Every kind of award. This award is very special also because it really is the top peer award. It's not like some government committee somewhere. It's the top people in the world in the water industry. Three other top professors in the world nominated me for the award.
WWi: Do you know who they were?
Benedek: Yes. One was Prof. Tony Fane -- [Prof. Anthony Gordon Fane, UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science & Technology, University of New South Wales] -- he is the leading researcher in the world in membranes and academic research.
WWi: Where is he at?
Benedek: New South Wales and also Singapore.
WWi: Who else?
Benedek: And then this gentleman I mentioned earlier Dr. Ong Choon Nam, who lead the water reuse study and is a professor at the National University of Singapore.
WWi: And the third?
Benedek: Prof. Laszlo Somlyody. He's the former president of the IWA. He is in Hungary. He's actually a professor at the University of Budapest.
WWi: So, it all goes back to home, too.
Benedek: You asked me one more question, which I never answered -- what am I doing right now? I have a research associate position at UC-San Diego in oceanography. And it's been very interesting for me to understand the global warming issue better through my association with Scripps.
WWi: That's in La Jolla, yes.
Benedek: Yes, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And I'm not moving on to develop a company particular company in the alternate energy field, which is UTS Biogas in Germany.
WWi: Where's it at in Germany?
Benedek: Near Munich.
WWi: Are you going to be at IFAT?
WWi: I will be there as well. I'm assuming there's a wastewater angle on that.
Benedek: Yes, of course. The idea is to make more energy out of wastewater, waste in general.
WWi: Capturing the methane or biogas, if you will.
Benedek: Yes. I had a non-compete clause with GE, so I had to find a new area where I could make a difference.
WWi: Is this your company in Munich?
Benedek: I made the investment, yes.
WWi: So you own the company and you're developing it there?
WWi: Why in Munich?
Benedek: Because the German government has the right policies to help companies in the alternative energy field and the U.S. does not.
WWi: Is that something you think that there needs to be made some changes made here for?
WWi: What's needed?
Benedek: I think the need is to get off the ethanol and get onto things that are more likely to solve the problem.
Benedek: Because ethanol is not saving any energy in the long run and it's driving food prices up. It was a very bad choice.
WWi: There's one other element you could likely add to that, which is that ethanol takes too much water to produce as well.
Benedek: Well, no, I mean you can always reuse the water. I think it's a net energy output, though. That's the problem.
WWi: Well, we've gone well beyond what we normally do for these interviews. What would you like to say in closing to the readers of WWI?
Benedek: I think the most important story about me and that I hope will be of benefit to your younger readers is that, if you dream and you truly believe that dream, it will happen. And I hope that your readers dream big and continue to improve the world. That's what life is about.
WWi: I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed speaking with you. Congratulations again.
Benedek: Thank you very much, David.