Wastewater 2.0: The Age Of Innovation
Thanks to some forward-thinking pioneers and early adopters committed to innovation, the wastewater industry is on the precipice of radical change.
For many municipalities, old treatment methods and practices are still in play because they are comfortable and predictable, but we are coming to a point where that rationale will no longer hold water — or wastewater, in this case. When confronted with technology that is clearly superior — more effective, economical, energy-efficient, and sustainable — there is little choice but to advance and upgrade. This is especially true when government regulations, community obligations, and shrinking budgets demand improved performance. Because of these forces, a sea change in the industry is imminent, and ready to forever change the course of wastewater treatment.
Hubs Of Innovation
The groundswell for this transformative innovation has actually been building for years, and in some very specific places. Boston, for instance, boasts more than 30 water startup companies, in addition to established companies such as Siemens and CDM Smith. Furthermore, the city recently hosted the inaugural Symposium on Water Innovation in Massachusetts to discuss how the region could become a global innovation leader in the water industry. Boston has all the key ingredients in place to fulfill such promise: large purchasers in the area, namely utilities and big corporations; access to R&D through its many startups and universities; and, finally, a wealth of local capital.
One of Beantown’s many bright spots is Oasys Water, which uses forward osmosis technology to treat highsalinity water for reuse, specifically for hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry. Whereas reverse osmosis requires high pressure and substantially more power, forward osmosis — utilizing reengineered membranes — works at lower pressures with less energy. By lowering the cost of desalination, this technique has the potential to be a gamechanger for both wastewater and drinking water applications.
Boston’s West Coast counterpart is the Central Valley of California, where more than 120 water, energy, and agriculture technology companies have taken root. Home to a huge agriculture industry, worth about $19 billion in exports per year, water is in high demand but scarce in the dry Central Valley, making it an ideal testing ground — and, ultimately, proving ground — for water and energy innovation.
In particular, the BlueTechValley initiative — a collaboration of industries, universities, and non-government organizations (NGOs) — has set out to transform the Central Valley into “the Silicon Valley of water” by focusing on high-tech water and wastewater solutions. One such example of cuttingedge technology is the use of ultrasound and reusable ion exchange resins to remove contaminants from industrial wastewater. The potentially groundbreaking development comes from the Water and Environmental Technology (WET) Center, which is part of BlueTechValley.
These hubs of innovation, and others like them, have introduced many technologies that can serve utilities and their customers right now, but there is a stumbling block to grand-scale implementation — trust. If a treatment process doesn’t work, municipalities may face fines and other financial repercussions, and — much worse — public health could be compromised. It is no wonder, then, that utilities are cautious about going from traditional, proven methods to something new. Only after a bold and progressive utility validates a technology will others follow suit, making these early adopters vitally integral in the evolution of innovation.
In 2009, the Durham Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility in suburban Portland stepped forward and became the first commercial facility in the United States to recycle phosphorus and other nutrients from wastewater into a commercial fertilizer. Using a unique, proprietary system developed by Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., Durham not only generates revenue through fertilizer sales, it has increased plant capacity and realized enough operational cost savings to provide a projected fiveyear return on its $2.5 million capital cost investment. Following Durham’s lead, six other U.S. municipalities have entered into public-private partnerships with Ostara for nutrient recovery facilities.
The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) is also a trailblazer, having invested $433 million to build the largest thermal hydrolysis plant in the world, as well as the first in North America for wastewater treatment. The Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, set for completion in 2014, will generate heat and power by “pressure-cooking” biosolids left over from the wastewater treatment process. Through the use of four anaerobic digesters, DC Water predicts it will produce enough biogas to cut its electricity consumption by a third, while also saving $10 million annually in trucking costs by cutting the amount of solids at the end of the process in half.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is another utility looking to draw energy from the waste stream, using a system developed by BlackGold Biofuels that turns fats, oils, and grease (FOG) into biodiesel fuel for use in city agency vehicles. The 300-gallon/day demonstration project is the first large-scale brown grease recycling project in the United States and, if proven successful, would serve as a prototype for municipalities nationwide. The technology could potentially solve two common issues for wastewater utilities and municipalities: It reduces high energy spending, and it disposes of problematic FOG. According to SFPUC, grease-clogged sewer pipes cost the city over $3.5 million each year to clean out.
Get On Board, Or Get Left Behind
The common obstacles besetting municipalities — particularly aging infrastructure and high energy costs — are becoming so acute that cold feet nor political agendas will be able to slow the march of progress. The inevitable tipping point, according to Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of BlueTech Research, will be here within the decade, and perhaps much sooner.
“Every technology goes through an innovation cycle periodically,” said O’Callaghan, whose firm provides market intelligence on innovative water technologies and companies. “Telecommunications had one about 10 or 15 years ago, and water hasn’t had one for about 100 to 150 years. The water industry is ripe for innovation, because it’s been static for a quite a long time.”
O’Callaghan points to other signs that innovation is ready to bubble over, including annual growth rates of 30% for water R&D, a stark rise in patents filed for water technologies, and the proliferation of conferences dedicated exclusively to water research and technology.
Indeed, the writing on the wall suggests that the wastewater technology revolution is on its way, and with it comes the choice to either get on board or play catch-up. With solutions designed specifically for what ails the industry, it is a wise move to investigate every alternative to the declining status quo — and the sooner, the better.