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Water Today Title May 29, 2024

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Update 2023/5/10
UN Innovators

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Transforming Wastewater Into Clean Energy

California start-up Aquacycl uses natural bacteria to clean wastewater and produce electricity

By Suzanne Forcese

“We want to change the way wastewater is managed. Wastewater is seen as a problem. We see it as an opportunity—because there is value in wastewater, in terms of embedded energy and the potential to improve watersheds, reduce freshwater consumption, and increase climate resilience.” -- -- Orianna Bretschger, CEO & Co-Founder Aquacyc

As part of Aquacycl’s mission to provide sanitation for all, a volunteer project to install a water purification system in 2019 at La Escuela de Salvador Diaz Ramon in Mexico provided safe water to 500 students and teachers during the pandemic.

WT: Orianna, recently you were invited to the UN Water Conference as one of the Top Innovators in March 2023. Also, among your list of impressive awards, you were recognized as one of the Top 50 Women of Influence in Engineering; Aquacycl recently won the WEX 2023 Global Award For Innovation in Decarbonizing.

Congratulations on these recognitions!

Bretschger: Thank you! I am incredibly honoured. The recognitions highlight all the arduous work the Aquacycl team has dedicated to our technology and the traction we have made since 2016 with our first pilot at a pig farm in Escondido, CA, and the second in Tijuana, Mexico treating residential sewage.

The recognitions are also motivating for the team because they help show the impact and importance of the work we do every day toward our vision of Sanitation and Clean Water For All.

WT: Please give us a brief overview of Aquacycl.

Bretschger: Aquacycl treats complex industrial wastewaters to support healthy watersheds and climate by improving water discharge quality, mitigating 90% of carbon emissions and generating electricity from industrial wastewater. We also offer features such as remote monitoring and control, allowing both the customer and Aquacycl to view real-time performance.

Our modular and scalable solution can reduce wastewater management costs by 20-60% and has been installed by some of the largest global food and beverage companies.

WT: Tell us about the Aquacycl team.

Bretschger: We are a core team of three. Sofia Babanova (our CTO & co-founder) with expertise in biosensors and enzyme-based cells and I have worked together since 2012, beginning as collaborators at different institutions. Our combined research paths merged in 2016 when we launched Aquacycl.

Coming from a career in manufacturing, product development and engineering, our third co-founder, Ryoji Naito, joined us for the early prototyping and product design to commercialize the next generation of wastewater technologies.

The water industry is male-dominated and we want to change that. Because women approach problems differently having female leadership is important to us. Our entire C-Suite team is female as well as key team members throughout the company, from warehouse to lab, to marketing to our Board of Directors.

WT: Your system is based on microbial fuel cell technology. What inspired you to develop this technology?

Bretschger: I started researching microbial fuel cells during grad school at the University of Southern California when I heard a professor discussing how microbes can simultaneously generate electricity which removes organic carbon. The subject fascinated me, and I ended up working on microbial fuel cell research for my Ph.D. and then continued this research as principal investigator at a leading genomics non-profit. During this time, we developed the technology to the point where it was commercially viable and spun out to form Aquacycl in 2016.

WT: Tell us about your modular system, how it works, and why it is superior to traditional methods of wastewater sanitation.

Bretschger: Aquacycl’s BioElectrochemical Treatment Technology (BETT®) systems use natural bacteria to clean wastewater, reduce sludge and produce electricity (no methane).

Locally sourced bacteria (sourced on or near the customer site) break down organic matter in the wastewater and release electrons during their natural process of respiration.

The released electrons are captured as direct current in the BETT system and can be used to offset the power consumption of the system.

Higher electrical currents enable faster treatment rates due to enhanced microbial respiration, resulting in treatment rates in hours instead of days or weeks required by other anaerobic processes.

Compared to traditional wastewater systems, our Bio Electrochemical Treatment

Technology (BETT) systems are small, modular, and treat streams that are up to 1,000 times more concentrated in organic matter than typical city water systems.

The generated electrical current also enables remote, real-time monitoring of system performance and offsite troubleshooting capabilities.

The BETT system is provided as a service, which includes all monitoring maintenance, and sludge management, providing hands-off operations for the customer.

WT: What industries does Aquacycl serve?

Bretschger: Currently we are working within food & beverage to treat high-strength streams. Also, we are working in hydrocarbon remediation, removing particularly challenging toxic compounds from tank storage and transport.

Our longest-running system is treating swine manure.

The technology has also been successfully demonstrated on other wastewaters, including sewage, pharmaceuticals, and fragrances. 

WT: How are you revolutionizing wastewater treatment?

Bretschger: Rather than treating all process wastewater, we help companies treat the most difficult and costly parts separately from the majority of relatively clean streams, thus reducing costs; overall system efficiency; footprint; sewer surcharges; trucking; and water consumption.

Aquacycl removes the highest amount of organic carbon without adding GHG emissions. 

WT: Interesting...tell us more about that.

Bretschger: The water sector is very energy intensive, contributing 4-5% of global GHG emissions.

Centralized wastewater treatment relies heavily on aerobic systems, which require substantial amounts of energy and generates high volumes of sludge.

The sludge is landfilled, which breaks down into methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2.

When we remove the bulk of organics at the industrial customer’s site, it means that the city does not need to use as much energy for treatment, and minimal sludge is produced from the streams associated with the discharge.

We have validated that by treating high-strength wastewater onsite, BETT systems can mitigate 90% of GHG emissions that would otherwise be generated during aerobic treatment.

In addition, the BETT systems operate without chemicals and with much lower energy requirements than traditional onsite treatment technology.

Net zero or net positive water goals include metrics around both water quantity and quality. When it comes to water quality, we guarantee permit discharge compliance.

For water quantity, Aquacycl reduces freshwater demand in a few ways. The first is to remove the bulk of organic material from the process wastewater, enabling water recycling with complementary technologies.

For example, we are installing a system at a distillery in Colorado where the treated wastewater will be reused on an adjacent farm as high-nutrient agricultural water.

Other uses of recycled water could be truck washes, floor cleaning, cooling towers, boilers or sharing with other industrial users that do not require drinking water quality.

Another way we help reduce water demand is by eliminating the dilution of these ultraconcentrated flows. The typical water adage is “The solution to pollution is dilution”. We are changing this to only treat what needs to be treated – without dilution.

This approach has an impact on operational costs as well.

WT: What are the different types of wastewaters where the BETT system has been deployed, and what results has Aquacycl achieved?

Bretschger: We have demonstrated the effectiveness of BETT systems on confectionary, brewery, distillery, sewage, swine waste, hydrocarbon remediation, and beverage wastewaters.

In each of these, we have met or exceeded our KPIs, which shows the versatility of the technology to treat different waste streams under very dynamic operating conditions.

We have commercial systems installed at beverage and distillery sites that have been successfully solving customer challenges for over two years.

In addition, we have run lab tests on over 60 different wastewater streams, everything from mayonnaise to fragrances. This helps us understand treatment efficiency on new wastewater streams.

WT: What’s next?

Bretschger: As we grow and scale, we will provide decentralized, off-sewer and off-energy grid wastewater treatment. This will revolutionize wastewater management by addressing areas that do not have access to sanitation using modular systems that do not require heavy infrastructure.

WT: What message would you like to leave us with?

Bretschger: Decentralized wastewater treatment is one element that can help society as we are forced to adapt to a new climate reality. By augmenting or replacing centralized treatment facilities with smaller, decentralized systems we can provide cost-effective sanitation and water in rural areas, as well as reduce risk and build redundancy for existing infrastructure.

Our mission is Sanitation For All. We envision distributed off-sewer and off-energy grid solutions throughout the world that help to build resilience to climate change, and access to safe and reliable sanitation.


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