Centre for Aquatic Environments

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“Innovations in Wastewater Management” Annual Symposium 15th May 2019

Reflections on this year’s event by co-organiser Dr Mary Gearey

This year’s Centre for Aquatic Environments Annual Symposium, held on 15th May in the Huxley auditorium, was themed around ‘Innovations in wastewater’. Co-organiser and the evening’s host, Dr Ian Mayor-Smith, selected a prestigious panel of guest presenters to provide us with insights from experts from industry, research and consultancy within the wastewater field.

Often overlooked as a niche specialism, wastewater management is central to our ability to live within increasingly population dense urban spaces. As the UN has predicted that by 2050 almost 80% of the world’s population will be living in cities and peri-urban spaces, combined with an expanding population which requires us to do more with less water, the issue of how we deal with our wastewater in a sustainable and resource positive manner is central to debates around public health and wellbeing. Although the three presentations showcased at the event were technically orientated, each made clear the wider societal and environmental implications of innovating in wastewater management and governance.

The connecting strand across all three presenters’ work is that the title of our symposium is actually wrong. It should have been termed “Innovations in resourcewater”. All three detailed within their work the paradigm shift that has taken place over the last decade around moving from a position of viewing wastewater (the domestic household effluent, stormwater and industrial bi-product water all societies create which ends in sewer networks) as a problem to solve, to acknowledging it as a resource laden end product. The resources that this product offers after processing includes phosphorous and nitrogen for agricultural fertiliser and soil conditioner and other industrial processes; bio-gas and bio-solids for energy generation and the plastics industry; and, of course, potable water to be returned to the distribution network after further treatment.

Dr Jimenez outlining his “the hare, the horse and the elephant” conceptualisation of barriers to wastewater innovation

After a rousing welcome from our Centre Director, Professor Chris Joyce, our first speaker, Dr Jose Jimenez, from US consulting firm Brown and Caldwell, admitted that he found wastewater ‘sexy’. Disconcertingly there was a ripple of agreement across the auditorium. Dr Jimenez started with some complex ideas presented in a highly accessible way. His work reflected on how for most countries around the world the large concrete infrastructure of the newly dubbed ‘water resource and recovery facilities’ are already developed. Therefore a key facet of innovation is to make use of existing buildings, and increase the speed and scale of resourcewater throughput. Dr Jimenez used the analogy of ‘the hare, the horse and the elephant’ to outline how the use of computing algorithms and in-reactor digital sensors can improve efficiency in nitrate shunting and sludge granularisation (the fast paced ‘hare’ end of innovation) which will ultimately have subsequent benefits throughout of the site itself (the slow moving incalcitrant ‘elephant’). He argued that innovation will make use of ‘grey box’ approaches which enable rapid onsite user augmentation to traditional predetermined albeit isolated optimisation algorithms (‘black box’). Such augmentation of real time process control optimises conditions for optimum resource capture and reduction of resource wastage.

Dr Ana Soares presenting her analysis of the paradigm shift which has changed perceptions from “waste” to “resource” water

This concept of optimisation was also adopted by our second eminent speaker, Dr Ana Soares, Senior Lecturer in Bioengineering at Cranfield University, UK. Dr Soares provided us with a fascinating time-line to think around how political and financial global events have impacted on innovations in the industry. In particular we learnt how the emerging use of activated sludge processes in 2004 and 2005, which were replacing the extant and long standing technology of treatment filters which had dominated 70% of the wastewater treatment market, were halted by the financial crisis in 2008 which saw energy prices spiral, slowing the uptake of this innovative technology. Although the commercial and municipal sectors returned to business as usual, the research innovators, such as the Water Science Institute at Cranfield, used this period to continue developing innovations in smaller scale treatment plants using Up flow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket UASB reactors. Through regularly sparging the reactor’s bio-membranes with gas it was shown that fouling decreased – thus making the technology durable and affordable. Through using low temperatures the reactors bi-product includes nutrient rich water, ideally used for fertigation in the irrigation dependent agricultural sectors. Dr Soares further argued that economic challenges can enable innovation; citing the current example of Brazil which mainly uses UASB reactors, and which other ‘developed’ countries now use as an exemplar for technology innovation.

Siraj Tahir Arup presenting as part of “innovations in wastewater”

Embracing collateralisation and thinking around how innovations in resourcewater could lead to innovations in other markets was taken up by our final presenter, Siraj Tahir of Arup. He outlined the ways in which Arup are championing cross-fertilisation of ideas between industries, consultancies and research institutions, to try and think long term and sustainably around the potential benefits of resourcewater across multiple platforms from a ‘circular economy’ perspective. One innovation concerned using biosolids as the base material for developing biopolymers; so enabling the plastics industry to use completely reusable and compostable materials. Mr Tahir provided numerous examples of online innovation hubs, including the ‘wetnetwork’ and ‘water dragons’ as a means for small scale innovation companies and large scale utilities to come together to problem solve; using the Sustainable Development Goals as a means to shape desired future outcomes.

Closing panel discussions “Innovations in Wastewater: Collaboration and Competition”

The evening ended with a lively panel debate, where the three presenters were joined by Matt Simpson Co-Founder of Typhon Treatment Systems Ltd and Elin Williamson Head of Research and Development at Southern Water, admirably chaired by Ian. Using CAE’s own event specific innovation, an email address ‘caequestions@brighton.ac.uk’, the audience were invited to participate through sending in questions and comments to the panel online if they wished to remain anonymous. Debating concerns around the benefits and inhibitions to innovation created by competition and collaboration within the waste/resource water industry, pressing issues were raised around supporting innovations without impacting upon intellectual property. Suffice to say, the debates continued over wine and nibbles, thoughtfully organised by CAE colleague and event co-organiser Suzy Armsden.

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Suzanne Armsden • May 20, 2019

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