Making energy-neutral wastewater treatment a reality
Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey
Food & Beverage manufacturers generate highly-concentrated organic wastewater that conventional technologies cannot treat without dilution. These high-concentrate waste streams are increasing in volume and organic concentrations due to initiatives that minimize water usage during every stage of food and beverage manufacturing. Today, the only options to manage high-organic wastewater are to land-apply or discharge small volumes to sewers if permits allow. Both of these options have environmental impacts and are expensive, costing up to $2MM per year, per facility. Onsite, distributed treatment can be prohibitively expensive because conventional treatment technologies require dilution, a large footprint, and are capital intensive, failure-prone and energy intensive. Microbial fuel cells have long been explored as a waste-to-energy approach that provide energy-neutral or energy-positive wastewater treatment. However, until now, attempts to commercialize the technology have failed due to high material and production costs, scalability challenges, and efficiency losses that minimize energy recovery during the treatment process. Aquacycl is the first company to solve the technical challenges that have previously limited the commercial use of microbial fuel cell technology and identify the correct product-market fit where microbial fuel cell technology provides immediate value to end-users by reducing wastewater management costs by 20%-60% relative to current practices.
Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved
Aquacycl® was built on 10+ years of laboratory research into how microbes simultaneously consume organic contaminants in wastewater and generate direct electricity. The research conducted by my team resulted in over 35 peer-reviewed journal articles and led to a very focused technology development approach that was based on understanding specific microbial processes. Technology development led to successful fielded prototypes operating for 4+ years in farm, brewery and residential applications. Aquacycl was founded at the end-of 2016 to commercialize the technology. Aquacycl now provides wastewater treatment as a service using the first commercially successful microbial fuel cells for reducing wastewater management costs. The Aquacycl BioElectrochemical Treatment Technology (BETT®) is the only cost-effective, small footprint solution for directly treating organic wastewater with chemical oxygen demand (COD) values up to 300,000 mg-COD/L, total suspended solids (TSS) up to 30,000 mg-TSS/L and a wide range of temperature profiles. BETT systems are significantly more energy efficient than any other technology on the market because of low-pressure and low flow rate operations that reduce horsepower requirements. BETT takes advantage of passive air diffusion and eliminates the need for forced air. BETT enables water reuse when combined with complementary post-treatment technologies. BETT is also remotely monitored and controlled, which minimizes onsite operator time. My changemaker journey involves developing a technology from sound science, focusing on efficient wastewater treatment (not energy recovery), and demonstrating that microbial fuel cells are scalable and cost-effective solutions for F&B applications.
How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?
Water and wastewater systems are energy intensive, accounting for approximately 3–4 percent of energy use in the United States; and resulting in the emissions of more than 45 million tons of GHGs annually. Aquacycl systems build resilience to climate change in several ways. Distributed wastewater treatment reduces infrastructure needed for utilities. By treating the most difficult wastewaters directly onsite, Aquacycl increases efficiency for all downstream technology by reducing treatment times, energy consumption and required chemicals. For companies that land-apply high-strength wastewater, Aquacycl eliminates trucking and land-fill discharge, directly reducing associated GHGs. BETT systems generate direct electricity, meaning they can power themselves in many applications (if required). BETT systems can also be used as a pretreatment step for existing anaerobic digesters (AD). BETT normalizes complex feedstocks by breaking down complex carbons into simpler volatile fatty acids, hydrogen and carbon dioxide that feed directly to the AD for enhanced biogas production.
What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?
The water-related decisions that our initiative improves are related to corporate water stewardship. By providing an alternative to existing practices, Aquacycl is helping to change the way companies manage their wastewater, reducing energy use, maintaining permit compliance, and reducing burden to existing wastewater treatment plants. Aquacycl is also engaged with nonprofit efforts to improve water access and sanitation in economically disadvantaged communities, specifically in Baja California, Mexico. Aquacycl has worked with the VIIDAI program (www.viidai.com) and partner organizations since 2014. These collaborative efforts has resulted in the provision of safe and reliable drinking water to over 500 students in an agricultural community south of Ensenada, Mexico.
What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?
Starting a water technology company is filled with challenges. Some challenges that we have faced are associated with past microbial fuel cell commercialization attempts that failed to meet customer and investor expectations. Convincing a risk-adverse and slow-to-change market that the Aquacycl approach to microbial fuel cells is fundamentally different, and successful, has been an ongoing challenge. However, through successful paid demonstrations with multi-national corporate F&B manufactures, Aquacycl is building momentum and changing the perception of how wastewater management must be done. With the panic-buying associated with COVID-19 shutdowns, many F&B companies were forced to rapidly increase production to meet customer demand, which resulted in generation of more high-organic wastewater and associated discharge. These events revealed issues with existing infrastructure, challenges with controlling wastewater management costs, and a need to fix and/or proactively change existing processes. Aquacycl has met the call and is engaging with multiple clients to help reduces wastewater management spending and improve resilience.
In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?
The change that we are creating will not only continue, but accelerate. Aquacycl provides enabling technology and service that addresses the triple-bottom line. We are in discussions with seven major F&B companies. One of the world’s largest beverage manufacturers is implementing our systems at one location in 2021, followed by the potential for a staged rollout to additional facilities. We are building our sales and marketing momentum to increase awareness at F&B companies globally and anticipate wider adoption as corporations continue to invest in improved water management. We have worked with multiple consortia to develop and advocate for legislation that improves water-related policies and creates streamlined processes for evaluating, certifying, permitting, and adopting new water technologies within California. The largest risk to any water business is the speed of change within the industry. Corporate and municipal organizations are not quick to change or adopt new technologies.
What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?
The journey has been a tremendous learning experience, both in terms of the science (and applications of the technology) and the business. I had to change my mindset from being solely an advocate for technology to building a successful business. This transition required me to learn a different way of communicating the Aquacycl story and I found help through accelerator programs, like Imagine H2O, and learning from other technical founders. I now speak frequently about this topic at startup and water-related events and remain engaged with Imagine H2O as a mentor for water entrepreneurs. Water education and outreach has been at the core of my journey. A centerpiece of this outreach is the pilot system that operates at a local High School. We use the pilot to teach students about engineering, chemistry, biology, and environmental science through hands-on activities and internships.