Barry Liner, CTO, Director, Water Science and Engineering center, Water Environment Federation
We are in the midst of a golden age of water innovation. Resource recovery technologies and intelligent water systems are rapidly advancing. Even water tech adoption timelines, which have been notoriously slow (albeit for excellent reasons) are starting to shorten.
"Water is the most important part of resource recovery and the circular economy, whether water is reused for irrigation, cooling, groundwater replenishment, or discharged to a stream providing clean water and habitat for the natural environment"
In the early part of the decade, we saw an explosion of advances coming to market ranging from phosphorus recovery from wastewater to anaerobic treatment. When the WEFTEC Innovation Pavilion was conceived in 2012, WEF and its partners Imagine H2O and BlueTech Research, focused on startup companies building businesses around these advances. From the 12 companies featured in 2012, the WEFTEC Innovation Pavilion now features over 40 companies, many of which are alumni, which means they are still in business, demonstrating the staying power of these innovations. In the last half of the decade, we are seeing intelligent water solutions move to the forefront as resource recovery becomes integrated into standard practice.
Quantifying the transition to standard practice, the WEF ReNEW Water Project seeks to accelerate resource recovery at WRRFs in order to fuel and grow a circular economy in our communities. There is no better example of the circular economy than water. As the Pure Water Brew’s tagline states “All water is recycled.” Water is the most important part of resource recovery and the circular economy, whether water is reused for irrigation, cooling, groundwater replenishment, or discharged to a stream providing clean water and habitat for the natural environment. In the water sector, we often hear “One Water,” an aspirational concept about total water management. One Water is a great concept at the macro level because we must take an integrated approach to solve our water resources challenges. However, as an overarching term “one water” is limited, because at the end-user level there are many types of water as exemplified by the term “fit for purpose.”
Fit for purpose means matching water of a specific quality to use appropriate for that quality. For example, a water with quality suitable for irrigation might not be suitable for industrial use as boiler feed water. Because water can be treated to varying qualities depending on the need, water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) should be aware of the end use of the product water they treat. This focus on treating to the appropriate use ensures both sufficient treatment for public health, environmental, or product needs while also minimizing the cost of over treating water to a quality level much different than is actually required by the end use.
In addition to water, of course, resource recovery can focus on nutrient recovery through struvite, algae-based treatment, land application of bio solids, or phosphorus recovered from incinerator ash. Energy can get be generated through biogas from anaerobic digestion for both electricity and vehicle fuels, while new technologies such as hydrothermal liquefaction show promise for additional energy recovery pathways. The water sector produces clean water fit for purpose, nutrients, and energy in a renewable fashion. Beyond one water, the sector produces renewable fertilizer from organic sources and renewable energy in multiple forms. On the horizon, other materials and chemicals will be harvested from wastewater. The dedicated water professionals in utility management, engineering, marketing, finance, and academia have always known that we make a difference. Let us claim our impact to the circular economy that we’ve been contributing to all along.