By Paul O’Callaghan, CEO, BlueTech Research
Last week I attended the IWA Resource Recovery Conference in Venice. For two-and-a-half days, there were presentations on every imaginable aspect of wastewater resource recovery: magnetic extraction of phosphorus as vivianite, Kaumera alginate production factories in the Netherlands, manufacturing protein from biogas in Belgium, recovery of nitrogen from source-separated urine in Michigan and a virtual cornucopia of biochemical intermediate products; endless permutations of the three basic building blocks of life, carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – succinic acid, butyrate, alkanoates – and whatever you are having yourself.
The fact that the conference was held on a tiny island off of Venice gave it the feeling of a secret gathering of the Resource Recovery Illuminati. All that was missing was a secret RR handshake before you took the podium.
The only access on or off was by boat – very James Bond. I did find myself wishing I had a sea-kayak at times to escape for an espresso on the mainland. My own keynote presentation focused on the practical applications that we have seen globally in action that turn this into a market reality.
I am still synthesizing all that I saw and heard and this will soon be distilled into a BlueTech Briefing. A few immediate observations are that resource recovery is still quite Eurocentric and dominated largely, though certainly not exclusively, with research projects funded by the EU under the Horizon 2020 programme. If the Europeans stopped funding these programmes, I wonder what would happen to this entire field. For example, I don’t see this currently being a key theme in other global water hubs such as Singapore and Israel.
At the same time, the body of scientific knowledge and understanding of the practical applications that are being demonstrated are now reaching a point where you wonder whether resource recovery will trickle over into the mainstream market due to shear critical mass of projects. It does feel that there is an embarrassment of riches here in terms of options. This will eventually need to consolidate down to a few key pathways.
At the moment in wastewater treatment, the bulk of the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen end up as biosolids and the lion’s portion of this, in many places, is recycled for beneficial reuse in agriculture. This also captures many of the nutrients, micro-nutrients and complex organic molecules. Currently this is the dominant, albeit not-very-sexy, resource recovery paradigm; with some of the carbon pulled out en route, as biogas and as part of anaerobic stabilisation.
The fate of biosolids-to-land has always looked precarious, but has proved to be incredibly resilient, rebounding from every crisis it has come up against so far, from heavy metals to poly aromatic hydrocarbons. This is in no small part due to the lack of economically and technically feasible alternatives, But legislative changes in Central Europe and issues such as antibiotic bacterial resistance and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are all further threats.
This is all part of the complex and dynamic mix where politics, science and market realities interact to determine the future. It is vibrant area of opportunity and one that BlueTech is keenly tracking and analysing.
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