Home Innovation Out of the Water Closet: Water industry bursting with new ideas

Out of the Water Closet: Water industry bursting with new ideas

First published in Cleantech magazine, Volume 6 Issue 6. Copyright Cleantech Investor Ltd

By Elisabeth Jeffries

It may not have been the hottest topic of conversation in home improvement shows, but a neat little device has found its way into UK bathrooms over the last few years – the compact toilet cistern.  Like CFL light bulbs, it is meaner and more efficient than its predecessors, but less satisfactory. Instead of the generous nine litres we had to flush the loo 20 years ago, we are now allowed only six – and that despite recent serious floods!  It seems most unfair. 

What, then, might homeowners think of the model which is round the corner? A prototype of a waterless toilet, designed by engineers at Cranfield University, will be unveiled in 2013.  Luckily for them, they may not need to try it just yet. The Nano Membrane Toilet, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the tune of $800,000, is intended to relieve water shortages in countries with poor sanitation and frequent droughts – where people still have to rely on squat toilets or plastic bags.  Cranfield says it will be able to treat human waste on site without external energy or water.

Based on innovative nano and advanced water treatment technologies, the Nano Membrane Toilet reduces sludge water content through membranes that allow water to be extracted as a vapour via a mechanism powered by the user. The resulting sludge moves downwards and is compressed into briquettes, which may be used for energy production or as fertiliser.

Cranfield’s waterless toilet, however unfamiliar, typifies major changes only just getting under way – the gradual transformation of standardised commodity industries like water into new, innovative sectors making unusual, even disruptive, products.  For decades there seemed no need to change these perfectly functional items.  But perhaps they could evolve into smart, branded home appliances as marketable and unusual as the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

Changing our basic sewage system is the first major step.  Dr Elise Cartmell, head of Cranfield Water Science Institute, explains that one of the aims of water companies is to slash the energy consumed by the present, century-old system called activated sludge through which biomass is aerated using blowers. 

“Liquids go through the activated sludge process, which has very high energy demand.  We are trying to replace it with one that doesn’t require oxygen – an anaerobic process,” she says.  This involves using heavy grains which capture the bacteria and sink to the bottom as volumes of liquid flow through the system. Since the treatment does not require the separate flow of liquid and solid waste, it could mean reconfiguring waste water stations.  Yorkshire Water could be one of the first companies to pilot the new treatment.

However, many water technologies emerging from Cranfield are commercialised via Bluewater Bio, the company that acquired Cranfield spinout Water Innovate in 2010.  Bluewater Bio has a symbiotic relationship with Cranfield University. On the one hand, it is allowed first sight of all ideas owned by the Water Science Institute. On the other, it opens the door to markets previously inaccessible to Water Innovate and Cranfield inventors. 

“Bluewater Bio’s acquisition of Water Innovate allows us to access much broader expertise and larger organisations using existing contacts with overseas organisations.  It gives us a greater capacity and resource we weren’t able to deliver beforehand and takes Water Innovate to the next stage,” explains Professor Tom Stephenson, head of the School of Applied Sciences at Cranfield University, chairman of Water Innovate and advisor to the Bluewater Bio board.

Among the many other Cranfield ideas from which the company could benefit is a high performance chemical additive, a coagulant that could decrease the use of chemicals.  “For drinking water one of the main places you use chemicals is for the removal of colour – this is especially a problem for water in peaty areas. The chemicals help to group solid particles together to form heavier flocs [small clumps] which can then be removed via settling. That helps clear the water,” states Dr Cartmell.  Removing solids and particles that cause colour, for instance, uses a great deal of chemicals.  But the new product, known as ZR-Coag©, could reduce the amount needed. 

Existing coagulants are typically based on iron and aluminium salts. But Cranfield scientists have found that zirconium ions are more effective as coagulants and produce larger flocs which are easier to separate.  The process can be used to remove natural organic matter as well as other pollutants, including dissolved organic compounds and pollutants that create turbidity and colour.  Lower costs are a major benefit of reducing chemicals use.  If the treatment is successfully commercialised, it could be used in a range of applications, including industrial wastewater and drinking water. 

According to Dr Cartmell, the previously conservative water industry is now ready for change.  Although many of the drivers are new regulations or carbon and energy targets, she argues that these are not the only motivation. “It’s not all about external pressure; companies want to improve and be a leading water company.  Water technologies are moving forward and are now entering a phase of implementation and commercial development. It’s an exciting time,” Dr Cartmell says.  Certainly, water companies sponsoring innovative projects signal their willingness to change – helping break down one of the barriers to innovation since they are the major customers.

Carbon extraction is also the focus of scientists at LEC, Lancaster University’s high tech environmental research and commercial centre.  Half of LEC’s staff is engaged in water-related research.  One group has patented a device that it claims could leapfrog present commonly used ion exchange columns and sand filtration techniques using materials innovation.  The device consists of a fine submicron material in which emulsion is held in water using magnets as water passes through.  Colorants are among the pollutants it could remove.

“When it is scaled up, it will form part of a wastewater treatment plant, replacing current technology. It’s a low cost, highly efficient device, unique because of its magnetic properties, that traps chemicals. It can be re-used and recycled and then goes back into the purification plant, and it has no byproducts,” states Dr Ben Herbert, director of research and environment at Stopford Energy and Environment, an associate company based at LEC that works to commercialise some of Lancaster University’s inventions.  He says the company will have produced a lab scale prototype by March 2013, following which it will be looking for investors in the form of a water treatment company or private funders in order to develop a commercial prototype. 

LEC’s concern with another major environmental research area, flood management, provides an interesting insight into the commercial agendas of some research funders. Regulations have compressed toilet cisterns during a period of increased flood warnings by the Environment Agency and insurance companies.  Precision tools for flood mapping are the latest trend in the sector.  Flood maps, insurance companies suggest, need to be more finely grained.  Hence, LEC hydrologists, alongside numerous researchers in many other institutes, are developing software providing metre by metre flood risk data. 

“Insurance companies will be able to know where flood risk is the highest so they can load premiums accordingly...all our modelling work allows lots of layers of information to be interpreted and fixed on to a mapping system in a way not done previously. Visualisation is the novel part of it,” states Dr Ruth Alcock, head of enterprise and business partnerships at LEC.

For most utilities, smarter, more precise technologies are also a major route forward.  If smart energy meters are to be installed across the UK over the coming decade, it is only a short step to envisage more sophisticated water intelligence – meters and sensors that help water companies detect leaks near the consumer’s home.  The European Commission is already funding a research project, known as WIDGET, which aims to help householders and suppliers understand their combined water and energy use in real time and so reduce waste and leakage.

Dragan Savic, Professor of Hydroinformatics at Exeter University’s Centre for Water Systems, suggests this could be a future innovation, and it is under consideration through another jointly funded project known as Neptune, hosted by Sheffield University.  His team’s own focus is on improving real time intelligence analysis at water company facilities through better software.

“Neptune has investigated methodologies for using smart water meter information, and through a visionary EU project is developing a business model considering when is the commercial break-even point for investment in SMS and intelligence analysis,” Professor Savic says.  Water companies, he points out, already benefit from smart technology at their own facilities.  The challenge is to create a command centre as powerful as electricity grid control rooms which could make sense of the data emitted by thousands of sensors placed out in the field on the customer side in future.  Improving intelligence analysis is a step in that direction.

Meanwhile, a consortium including Leeds University is moving to fill a major gap in underground knowledge – the network of pipes, cables and other infrastructure supporting the economy in the UK and elsewhere.  Different companies laying down new networks may not always reveal the whereabouts of other company’s assets which they find under the tarmac as they go about their business.  The result is a tangle of underground tubes, but no overview.  Companies may still have to resort to physically tapping the ground above or digging just to investigate. 

“The fact that there is no single piece of technology we can rely on suggests it’s a widespread problem, perhaps because the UK’s infrastructure is much older than most,” suggests Dr Judith Thornton of water@leeds, the university’s interdisciplinary water research centre.  The technology, to be commercialised eventually through Oxford University spinout Oxems, involves developing a tool able to manage different and sometimes conflicting signals from various sensors so that it could detect different kinds of underground assets at the same time. 

“You just want one app with the answer in it. That’s never been available before,” explains Dr Thornton. The aim of the research project, known as ‘Mapping the Underworld,’ is to develop a prototype multi-sensor device using ground penetrating radar, acoustics and electromagnetic technologies to locate all infrastructure in all ground conditions.

Perhaps the best solution of all is to cut down on water consumption altogether.  This is certainly the focus of Chamelic, a Leeds University spinout.  The company has produced a dust repellent coating for photovoltaic panels.  It is a niche market, perhaps, but Dr Thornton believes that demand from solar plants in the driest locations could be quite high.  “There’s not enough water to wash the dust, and the coating reduces the frequency you need to wash the panels.  The project can also be extended to anti-fog coatings and billboards.” Using the coating, she suggests, could save a company seven megalitres of water a year and reduce wash frequency from weekly to every two months.  Chamelic has several patents and completed field trials. 

Selected UK water technology university research

University Research areas Technology Applications Deployment plans

Cranfield

Reduced water and energy use in human waste treatment Nano and advanced water treatment technologies Water saving in countries with poor sanitation and frequent droughts Launch of Nano Membrane Toilet, commissioned by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, scheduled for 2013
Reduced energy consumption in activated sludge Anaerobic activated sludge process  Sewage treatment Planned pilot by Yorkshire Water
Water purification High performance chemical additive, ZR-Coag© - a coagulant based on zirconium ions Industrial wastewater and drinking water  Scope to be commercialised by Bluewater Bio (through Water Innovate)

Lancaster

Pollution control Submicron materials innovation: emulsions held in water using magnets Mining water treatment Lab scale prototype expected by 2013 with Stopford Energy & Environment
  Precision tools for flood mapping Flood management risk control (e.g. data for insurance companies)  

Sheffield

Sheffield University

Leak detection Sensors and meters Householders and suppliers can understand combined water and energy use to reduce waste and leakage  

Exeter

 Exeter University

    Real time intelligence analysis  

Leeds/Oxford

Oxford University

Leeds University

‘Mapping the Underworld’ Managing different signals from varying sensors to detect different kinds of underground assets simultaneously To be commercialised by Oxford University spin-out, Oxems Prototype multi-sensor device being developed

Leeds

Leeds University

Dust repellent coating for photovoltaic panels Water savings by reducing wash frequencies Being commercialised by Chamelic, a Leeds University spin-out  
 

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