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Andrew Benedek, DSc ‘03

Chemical Engineering | Pivoting from scientist to entrepreneur

There is cleaner water all over the world, thanks to Andrew Benedek’s research.

Now a global authority on water technology, Benedek traces his career focus to his first job out of university in the 1960s. Hired by a petrochemical company to measure pollution flowing from its plants, he faced the shocking realization that toxic chemicals were flowing untreated into waterways. Determined to help fix the world’s water pollution crisis, he left the company and headed to graduate studies.

After earning his PhD, he joined McMaster as a Chemical Engineering professor and researcher with the Civil Engineering department’s Water Research Group.

“This group was way ahead of its time in trying to find technologies to solve the water pollution issues that the world was just starting to understand,” says Benedek. “Its mission was exactly what I needed when I graduated with my PhD.”

While researching activated carbon adsorption, Benedek came to recognize that low-pressure membranes could offer a more direct answer to solving water pollution.

As an easier, cheaper and more energy-efficient way to purify and desalinate water, the membranes revolutionized water treatment methods, and brought the promise of clean drinking water to poor and rural communities around the globe.

Pivoting from academic to entrepreneur, Benedek developed the membrane technology and brought it to market through the launch of his Burlington-based company Zenon Environmental Inc. in 1980. He grew the company to annual sales of about $250 million CDN and a global workforce of about 1,500 people before selling it to General Electric in 2006.

In 2003, Zenon won the Stockholm Water Industry award, and in 2008, Benedek was awarded the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize. The prestigious accolade recognized the pioneering nature of his work and the “huge benefit for mankind” as a result of his research.

A decade ago, Benedek founded Anaergia, a company based on the idea that valuable resources, including energy and fertilizer, can be extracted from wastewater and other waste streams.

“I continue to be amazed by the genius of human beings who are driven to improve the world, therefore, I am optimistic that today’s bright engineering graduates who have a passion for planetary sustainability, can and will solve the existential threats faced by humanity in the 21st century,” says Benedek.