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VANCOUVER CLEAN TECH COMPANY TREATS A WIDE RANGE OF PHARMACEUTICAL POLLUTANTS IN MANUFACTURING PLANTS’ WASTEWATER
By Suzanne Forcese
In a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in April 2019, the United Nations, international agencies, and experts demand immediate, coordinated and ambitious action to avert a potentially disastrous drug-resistance crisis.
“If no action is taken,” warns the UN Ad Hoc Inter-agency Coordinating Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, “drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and damage to the economy as catastrophic as the 2008-2009 financial global crisis. By 2030, antimicrobial resistance could force up to 24 million people into extreme poverty.”
Water contaminated with Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) has become one of the sources of antimicrobial resistance. Turning up in natural waterways and drinking water, APIs have come under scrutiny for their potential health effects on people and wildlife. Ironically the very drugs that have been used with therapeutic success are being blamed for creating superbugs.
Human waste has been identified as the main source of these pharmaceuticals along with the practice of flushing unused medications down the toilet. However, an often-overlooked contributor is the wastewater produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers.
WaterToday spoke with Jonathan Rhone, CEO of Axine WaterTechnologies, who filled us in on the problem. “Pharmaceutical manufacturing plants generate large volumes of wastewater during everyday operations. One example is rinse water from cleaning reactors, fermenters, mixing vessels and other production equipment. Some of the liquid becomes contaminated by the drugs’ active ingredients.” Manufacturers don’t have a solution for treating this type of wastewater with these toxic, non-biodegradable organics. Typically, it has to be
trucked to a facility where it is incinerated using fossil fuels.
“This established practice within the pharmaceutical industry becomes very energy-intensive, expensive, and has a lot of environmental liabilities.”
In some cases, pharmaceutical plants are exceeding discharge limits for specific organic compounds, associated with discharging API contaminated effluent to surface water.
Rhone, who is described as a serial clean-tech entrepreneur took the helm at Axine in 2010, and has led the company to be recognized as one of the Global Clean Tech 100 (the gold standard determined by a panel of blue-chip investors’ review of 14,000 global companies). Axine Water Technologies, an on-site wastewater treatment provider, has developed an innovative electrochemical oxidation technology for treating active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in wastewater without the use of chemicals allowing for safe discharge to the environment-- potentially halting the rise of antibiotic resistance.
“I went into Axine as an entrepreneur in residence, looking at early stage technology and recognized the potential.” The technology developed in Canada, with a very experienced team from around the world has now been introduced to the United States and Europe. “We’ve got an intellectual portfolio and trade secrets in a truly ‘Made in Canada’ technology packaged in complete solutions.”
“Water is an area that needs a lot more investment to address challenges that consistently rank it as a top 10 global risk by the World Economic Forum.”
“The problem we’re solving relates to industrial wastewater generated by the manufacturing process.”
Billions of gallons of wastewater are produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Active APIs include antibiotics, antimicrobials, chemotherapy medicines, pain relievers, anti-parasitic medications, anti-depressants and other therapeutic drugs. “These are very complex, toxic, recalcitrant organic pollutants which tend to be non-degradable. Manufacturing plants are not set up to treat APIs in wastewater.”
Axine’s technology applies electricity to advanced electrodes to oxidize and destroy all types of APIs without using hazardous chemical and without generating liquid or solid waste.
“We have electrodes with advanced catalyst materials on them. When we apply electricity to them, they produce an oxidant on the surface of the catalyst. That generates one oxygen and one hydrogen molecule which is called a hydroxyl radical.
“The hydroxyl radical is very reactive. We flow the wastewater through a series of these catalysts that produce hydroxyl radicals on their surface. The hydroxyl radicals react with the organic pollutants – anything from pesticides to pharmaceuticals to solvents to PFAS – and they rip the molecules apart and oxidize them back to their basic building blocks of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen gas.”
Testing and analysis were conducted at Axine’s product development facility in Vancouver and at customer sites. “Our goal is to establish a new standard of care for treating APIs and other toxic organics in pharmaceutical wastewater, to help eliminate APIs in manufacturing effluent, reduce environmental risks and achieve sustainability goals,” Rhone said.
Axine has developed a breakthrough, on-site treatment system that addresses the cost and risk of off-site trucking and disposal, ensures compliance, improves safety and environmental performance and streamlines operational efficiency.
“By combining advanced catalyst materials, proprietary reactor design into a modular, automated, turnkey system with remote monitoring data analytics we’re achieving these objectives.”
In addition, Rhone says, “Axine enables customers to adopt our solutions without investing capital or taking technology risk. Instead of selling an end use, we will finance it, build it and maintain it with no risk to the customer. We’re finding this approach aligns very well with the emerging trend toward ‘smart factories’ characterized by automation, adaptability and low impact manufacturing.”
Another bonus is that “treated water from Axine can either be reused or safely discharged to sewer. For manufacturers this reduces operating costs, reduces risks, streamlines operations and improves safety and environmental performance.”
Rhone predicts governmental API regulations to be slow – “unless there is a significant health event such as a superbug outbreak.”
“We expect the EU to lead in developing API regulations under pressure from individual governments such as Sweden and other stakeholders.”
However, industry is taking the lead. The Pharmaceutical Supply Chain, which is made up of major pharmaceutical companies specifically to establish and promote responsible practices, and the AMR Industry Alliance (a private sector coalition of over 100 biotech companies) are setup to develop solutions to antimicrobial resistance.
“We are working with pharmaceutical companies who are taking concrete steps to address API risks in their own operations.”
Axine Systems are designed and installed as complete turnkey solutions,typically including electrochemical reactors, a power supply, controls, instrumentation, water and gas management, system enclosure, wastewater tanks, installation, start- up and commissioning. Courtesy Axine Water Technologies.
Wrapping up our conversation, Jonathan Rhone told WT, “I am proud of our amazing team. These are tough challenges to solve and our team gets up every day with the goal to find solutions.”
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