Resource Recovery from wastewater – the new paradigm

Everywhere you look people are trying to do more with less. Reduce costs, increase efficiency, reduce energy use, recover resources. There are strong economic drivers to do all of these things, they also happen to be sustainable.

Last Thursday (July 22nd 2010) I moderated the first in the BlueTech Tracker(TM) Webinar series: Mineral & Resource Recovery from Wastewater. We featured four companies with innovative technologies, and perhaps even more importantly, innovative business models. The companies were Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, Calera, CASTion and Oberon. Ostara produces a slow release fertilizer product, Crystal Green(TM) from wastewater, Calera, a Khosla Ventures backed company whose technology is part of a new infrastructure designed to view carbon, not as a pollutant, but as a resource. Calera might be accused of having a Superman complex in the cleantech sector, in that their technology simultaneously contributes to solving two of the most pressing environmental issues of our time: climate change and water scarcity. Calera sequesters carbon from power plants, produces a low carbon cement and helps to desalinate water. The CASTion Corporation has an Ammonia Recovery Process (ARP) which can produce an ammonia fertilizer product from wastewater and recently won a $27.1M contract with the City of New York to provide a cost effective method for the City to achieve compliance at its 26th Ward Wastewater Treatment plant.

Concluding the quartet, was Oberon FMR. Oberon takes wastewater from the food processing industry, and through the application of some clever biotechnology (single cell protein synthesis), produces a value added, high protein, fish meal replacement for use in the aquaculture industry.

A few key take-aways:

1. This is about Costs
To get out of the starting gate with wastewater technologies in this area, you have to have a compelling value proposition. Resource recovery can enable a technology provider to off-set operational and capital costs and thereby provide a cost effective solution to their clients.

Ahren Britton, CTO with Ostara put it very succintly with the observation, ‘as a standalone wastewater treatment technology, we wont always be the cheapest way to remove phosphorus; as a fertilizer production company, we might not compete with current ore prices, but put the two together, and that’s what makes for the winning proposition’.

David Delasanta, President of CASTion noted that the decision by the City of New York to go with their ARP system on a new project was driven by economics. The City had a regulatory requirement to remove ammonia and the ARP system represented the lowest cost option occupying the smallest footprint. The City in fact sole-sourced this option from CASTion.

The Sustainability and political angle can help to push these projects over the line, as the person who finally signs off on expenditure is likely to be a political animal. However, to get this far in the process, you first have to convince the people on the ground that this is a good idea, and their concerns tend to be less politically motivated and more related to ‘will this work and how much will it cost?‘.

Seth Terry, Oberon VP of Operations said they have found that the Corporate Sustainability angle of their approach to turn food processing wastewater into a feedstock for fish meal replacement production, has peaked the interest of a number of major Corporations and was one of the factors which helped them to secure a contract with Miller Coors to construct a full-scale demonstration facility at their site.

Here again though, there is a monetary value to a company in terms of brand value to be able to show its shareholders that instead of generating a waste product which required disposal, they were able to ‘up-cycle’ the resources in their wastewater and in doing so, off-set the unsustainable harvesting of biomass from oceans to produce fish-meal for fish farms.
2. Resource Recovery is becoming a geo-political and security issue
Certain resources such as phosphorus are becoming a geo-political issue. China has recently put an export tax on phosphorus to discourage the export of this valuable commodity, to preseve it and keep it a home to enable food production. China is known for its ability to take a long term view on things and this is an early indicator of how important this resource may become. It is worth noting, that like oil, phosphorus resources are found in a number of unstable regions of the world.

3. Companies which succeed in this area need to know two markets
The flip side of producing a product while treating a waste, is that you need to simultaneously build an outlet and channels to market for your product, at the same time as you are developing the infrastructure to produce it. This is challenging when working with a variable feedstock (wastewater) and when the quantities you produce, initially, do not make a dent in the larger market for that commodity.

To succeed, companies need to understand the wastewater treatment market and also, understand the market for the commodity they are producing.

In the case of Calera, this means they have to know the concrete and aggregate business. In the case of Oberon, they have to know the fish-meal business. Ostara and CASTion both have to understand the dynamics of the fertilizer industry. When you hear Calera CEO, Brent Constanz speak about the nuances of the concrete and aggregate market, and then switch back to the importance of piloting on different wastewater streams, you get a feel for the level and depth of understanding required to succeed in straddling these divergent worlds.

At least a part of the sustainable business advantage these companies have, is their ability to understand and create a business model which meets customers needs on both sides of the fence. Companies that can do this are pulling away from the herd. When you combine this with technical know-how, continued innovation and a strong IP position, you have a sustainable first mover advantage which will be difficult for a ‘me-too’ to catch up with in the short term.

The next Webinar in our BlueTech Tracker(TM) Series is on Thursday July 29th at 12 noon PST and will put the spotlight on Microbial Fuel Cells and Bioelectrochemical systems. This group of technologies has the potential to generate electricity from wastewater and produce fuels and chemicals which can be sold. Again the approach is the same, how to squeeze some value out of that wastewater.

Paul O’Callaghan is Principal of O2 Environmental, a consultancy group providing water technology market expertise, founder of the BlueTech Innovation Forum and co-author of ‘Water Technology Markets 2010’.