Turning whey from dairy wastewater into alcohol and revenue

Turning whey from dairy wastewater into alcohol and a revenue stream was the subject of a recent presentation by Paul O’Callaghan CEO of O2 Environmental. This presentation was for Water Tech Week February 2011 in San Jose, California, USA and outlines, by way of a case study, how it is possible to save money and actually create revenue streams. This is through sustainable water and energy management and with a little bit of creative out thinking based on the work of Carbery Milk Products.

Carbery Milk Products is a major international food ingredients, flavours and cheese manufacturer headquartered in Cork, Ireland. They have operations in the US and were examining what to with their whey in their waster water.  What is interesting was they were not motivated by environmental reasons, there was an economic driver.

To view the PowerPoint here is the link

To view the script linked to the presentation here is the link

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’.

Low Cost Desalination – Saltworks Breakthrough

Canadian firm, Saltworks Technologies, just came out of stealth in relation to their desalination technology, which they claim reduce the electrical energy required for desalination by over 70%. They report they can produce 1m3 of water with 1kW hour of electrical energy, compared to the 3.7kWhr per m3, which is what is currently achievable using reverse osmosis with the use of energy recovery devices.
So how to they do it? Well its novel. It appears to be a new approach. And novel and new are two things scarce as hens teeth in relation to desalination technologies.
They use solar heat (or waste heat) to evaporate water and concentrate salt water. They are converting solar energy into osmotic energy by doing this. They then use this osmotic energy to desalinate water.
They then expose the concentrated salt water to two separate solutions of regular salt water via two different ‘bridges’, one which is porous to chloride ions, the second which is porous to sodium ions.

The sodium and chloride ions migrate across the respective bridges into the salt water solutions to equalise the difference in ion concentration between the solutions.
This creates two charged solutions, one enriched with sodium ions (positively charged), the second enriched with chloride ions (negatively charged).
These two solutions are then exposed across two similar bridges to the water to be desalinated. This draws sodium ions into the chloride enriched solution and draws chloride ions into the sodium enriched solution: Net result desalination. Doing this they reckon they can produce 1m3 of water using 1kWh of electrical energy, which is used to pump fluids around the pipework.
Because the system is not under pressure, they can use plastic pipes instead of steel pipes, potentially reducing capital costs also.

I met with Saltworks about six months ago in Vancouver and I was impressed by the methodical way they have been going about technology commercialisation. Despite winning a technology innovation award in British Columbia in May 2009, they have kept this remarkably quiet. An article in the Economist provides a good review of this.

Paul O’Callaghan is CEO of Technology Assessment Group, O2 Environmental Inc and author of Water Technology Markets.

Water & Energy – crisis and opportunity

Any plan to switch from gasoline to electricity or biofuels is a strategic decision to switch our dependence from foreign oil to domestic water’.

So says Dr. Michael Webber of the University of Texas at Austin in an interview with Steven Lacey on the Inside Renewable Energy Podcast this week. Webber comments on the links between water and energy, the potential conflicts, but also about the potential opportunities which arise when you start to understand these links and realize that saving water, saves energy, and saving energy saves water.

The Podcast picks up on some of the issues I wrote about in ‘Energy Vs Water’. Ironically the water footprint of driving your electric car, if the electricity is generated at a thermal power plant, is much greater than the water footprint if you were using conventional gasoline.
Wind and photo-voltaic generated electricity has a far lower water footprint than either fossil fuel of nuclear generated electricity. Biofuels such as corn ethanol and sugar cane, require an inordinate amount of water to produce a litre of fuel. (Check out Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States)

Brazil happens to get a lot of rain, so they have an ideal climate for growing a thirsty crop like sugar cane. Jatropha, which has been heralded as a ‘super biofuel’ – high yield and capable of growing on marginal land, recently came under fire as it came to light that it is a very thirsty plant. There are on-going efforts to genetically engineer it to use less water.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on lawns and how in California, certain municipalities are now ‘buying back’ lawns from homeowners to try and reduce water use. Michael Webber describes the water-energy paradox excellently when he says we are ‘using blue gold (water) to grow the grass, and then using black gold (oil) as a fuel to cut it back down again, with a zero net gain in many cases for society’.

There is however an opportunity in all of this. Saved water equals saved energy, and saved energy equals saved water. I have been looking at this closely in a new book on water technologies, “Water Technology Markets – key opportunities and emerging trends“. I looked at a range of technologies which can generate energy from wastewater and also at technologies which can reduce the energy required to desalinate seawater. Microbial Fuel cells are a very good example of this. A microbial fuel cell can purify wastewater and, at the same time, generate electricity. Its early days for this, but if successful could turn wastewater treatment plants, which are currently power hungry, into net producers of power. The company EMEFCY, came 4th in the Artemis Project Water Top 50 competition for its MEGAWATTER™ microbial fuel cell technology. There is a vision emerging for a smarter, more efficient, water system and creating the technologies which can make that system a reality, is where the BlueTech opportunity lies.

Paul O’ Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Sustainable Energy at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.