Ionic task: clean up the world’s contaminated water |

Ionic task: clean up the world’s contaminated water

Pat Patera

Cleaning up contaminants in the world’s water everything from mining wastes in Chile to municipal sewage in India is a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

Ionic Water Technologies of Reno wants the job, and it’s got 14 employees to put on it.

But to take on the world, Ionic needs to grow, and that takes money. The privately-held company plans to go public next spring on AIM, London’s Alternate Investment Market.

“The majority of our client base runs off the London market,” says Matthew Setty, chief executive officer. “London is the hub of mining business.”

With operations in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Chile, and investments in Peru and Bolivia, Ionic is now looking at a joint venture in India, says Setty.

The company did less than $10 million in sales this year, but plans to reach $30 million to $40 million in sales by 2009.

“We have a detailed 24-month plan to allocate funds to growth and to development of new technology,” he says. “For us, a half-million dollar project is not uncommon.”

Along with its need for capital, another challenge to growth is finding qualified engineers and chemists. The company’s tech guru is Timothy Tsukamoto, director of science and technology. One Ionic product involving bioreactors is currently non-patented. “But most of the information is between Tim’s ears, so there’s a certain level of protection in that,” says Setty.

And a third challenge faced by the company is credibility.

“An idea we run into is that only giant companies can address these issues,” Setty says. “Mining is a fairly niche market. And before, big consulting firms always came in to take care of it.”

The difference, he says, is that the big consulting firms identify a project and sell existing technology.

In contrast, Ionic views contaminant cleanup as a three-part process. It manufactures the technology, consults with clients, and executes the operation. Or in some instances, it will train the client to use its process.

In a world with more than six billion people generating sewage, Setty sees the greatest international potential in wastewater treatment.

“But mining companies have money to treat water,” adds Tsukamoto. “Municipalities in poor countries do not.”

Ionic’s process stands to be an affordable solution for poor peoples because it does the job with 90 percent less energy than required by conventional methods, says Setty.

Oxygen is the key to cleaning water. “When air oxidizes heavy metal contaminants it pulls them back into solid form,” he says.

Ionic hauls a unit alongside a holding pond of acidic mining wastes. It adds lime and picks up a thin film of water on rotors, which expose the liquid to air as they spin. Most of the energy is centrifugal.

Conventional processes pump compressed air into the water, which require far more energy than Ionic’s method. Setty estimates his company’s technology requires 90 percent less electricity.

But technical challenges remain, says Tsukamoto. “This is a new thing; we have to prove it works.”

Ten years back, passive bioreactor technologies used special bacteria to treat sulfuric-acid water contaminants. Even though the technology uses little energy or labor, it failed because it wasn’t completely passive, says Tsukamoto. It could not simply be installed and abandoned because it requires a carbon source such as ethanol to feed the bugs.

While its playing field is worldwide, Ionic is solidly rooted in Reno. “We’re all Nevadans,” says Setty. “No way will you get us to move to California.

“The principals all grew up out of Elko,” he adds. “They were in touch with clean up work at the mines.”

And while the Golden State may be awash in well-educated labor, he says, “Much of mining is here. And from a small business standpoint, incentives are available in Nevada.

“We can be a local Nevada company yet have a client base internationally. We can have foreign subsidiaries and input global work back to Nevada.

“Besides,” he adds, “we may be more successful at growing our employees due to UNR connections.”

Tsukamoto was formerly a research professor at University of Nevada, Reno and other employees either hold or are earning doctorates there.

The company maintains relationships with the university and contracts with its professors to work as consultants. In return, says Setty, Ionic Water Technologies will commercialize some of the patents held by the university.

Founded in 2004 in Boise, Ionic Water Technologies at the start was a pure research firm funded by mom and pop investors.

“Tim and I saw the potential and verified the research,” says Setty. They formed Ionic Water Technologies in its present incarnation

a year ago.

Ionics will keep R&D in Boise, says Setty. The Reno location will handle corporate sales, manufacturing business and international business.

But first it needs to grow out of the cozy converted home that houses its downtown office on Flint Street, says Setty, adding that the firm’s executives think they’ve found a new home suitable for manufacturing activity on Greg Street.


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