Pentair's acquisition last week of Tyco International's water pipe and valve business represents CEO Randy Hogan's gamble to transform the Golden Valley-based company into a global player in a world where water quality and shortages present enormous challenges and opportunities.

It also will make Minnesota an even bigger player in "water world."

"Business has figured out there's a market for something that most people take for granted," said Deborah Swackhamer, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota. "One in three [people] on the planet don't have access to clean water or some kind of sewage treatment. They are at a disadvantage.''

In Minnesota, the biggest water use is for thermal cooling of power plants, she said.

"As we have more people, we need more electricity and more cooling water and more waste treatment, all of which uses electricity. These companies in Minnesota, such as Pentair, GE's power and water [division], Ecolab, Tennant and others understand there will be unprecedented demand for our water.''

It's up to business to try to further the technologies so that we use less water, less electricity and less energy to meet the world's growing health, nutritional and sanitation demands, said Swackhamer, who is also a co-director of the U's Water Resources Center.

These Minnesota firms make a lot of the systems that drive sewage treatment plants, aerate lakes, desalinate seawater and conserve water. They are trying to make a buck around the globe by getting more bang from each bucket of water.

"Water is one of Minnesota's most underappreciated innovation clusters," said Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative, which brings together investors, innovators and industrialists in seminars, working groups and other forums. "It also is historically under the radar. There is massive global need. And opportunity."

Large and small municipalities throughout the state and world are in the business of providing ample quantities of clean water for drinking, bathing and industrial needs. Minnesota companies with billions in revenue supply them with technology, as well as next-generation innovations designed to use less water, reuse it and remediate dirty water.

Swackhamer, a scientist and public policy expert, noted that some of the fastest-growing industries in Minnesota are thanks to clean air-and-water regulations that also have led to a healthier, more-productive population and workforce.

Joe Such is general manager of GE's Water Process Technology plant in Minnetonka, which employs more than 500 workers who focus on industrial and municipal systems on this continent and in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and nearly 200 other countries.

In an interview last year, Such said the Minnetonka plant is one of several water "centers of excellence" within GE and described how within a few years GE technology will run water-treatment plants on methane gas from the waste through GE's Jenbacher J624GS engines.

"It will use technology out of [Minnetonka] and Canada," Such said. "We're going to marry these systems and offer complete wastewater treatment systems."

Several years ago, U.S. Water Services, a manufacturer of water-treatment equipment, opened a new headquarters and plant in St. Michael, Minn.

Chaska-based Aeration Industries since 1974 has cleaned everything from trout ponds to lakes and harbors from Minnesota to South Korea.

The water industry has become an investment play, with investor interest in companies including Pentair, GE, American States Water, California Water Service and other public companies in the arid West. The sector is often lumped with alternative energy firms into the "green investment" field.

Analysts said Pentair's merger with Tyco's flow-control business could take Pentair to "the next level." Pentair shares rose 19 percent from less than $40 per share last Monday to $47.61 on Friday. The Tyco deal was announced on Wednesday.

There is tremendous opportunity. Americans use about 150 gallons of water daily, twice that of Europeans, according to GE. In sparse-water parts of Africa and Asia, people get by with just a few gallons daily.

"Water technology is a pocket of opportunity for innovative businesses, Swackhamer said. "The Minnesota business community always has been pretty innovative. We've got water knowledge, green chemistry and technology. And we're never going to have enough fresh water here or around the world."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •