Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reflecting on SIWW2014 and Nepal2014

This summer I went to my first Singapore International Water Week (SIWW for those in the know). It was an excellent experience and thought I'd reflect on what I'd seen.

If I had to sum up what SIWW is all about, I'd say it was a truly global center for water professionals to network. I've been to other international conferences that do a decent job of connecting utilities, and/or consultants; others do a great job of connecting researchers and academics; still others connect regulators and policy makers... now SIWW somehow manages to bring all of them together. That's quite an acheivement. I'm a process engineer, which means I appreciate technologies and how we apply them to solve water issues. Until recently I've not really appreciated the value of networking with diverse water experts from around the world, but more and more I understand the axiom "it's who you know, not what you know." Of course it's nice to know a bit too and by rubbing shoulders with smart international experts you get to add to your own knowledge.

Fast forward to October 2014 and I'm about to head off to the IWA Specialist Conference "Sustainable Wastewater Treatment and Resource Recovery" in Nepal. I'm intrigued to see the diversity of water professionals at this conference in comparison to SIWW. In addition to diversity across the various roles in the water industry, I'll be interested to see a greater diversity across geopolitical boundaries which will help us to see the differences and commonalities across our profession. I've only worked in already-developed nations and seen wastewater treatment through the narrow lense of technologically intensive and centralized approaches. It will be good to take a step back and out to see how different nations are tackling wastewater treatment. There's a distinct possibility that other nations, still developing their infrastructure, can by-pass some of the mistakes we've taken in the West and jump ahead to more sustainable solutions directly. That's what I'm hoping for in the discussion segments of a workshop I'm helping to lead: "Workshop D: Leapfrogging to off- the- grid biological nutrient removal (October 27, 2014)". We'll see. Should be interesting...


Friday, April 4, 2014

WWTmod2014 - The Process Design and Optimization Seminar

I'm sitting in Brussels airport the day after the last day of the latest in a series of seminars focused on process modeling under the moniker "wwtmod" for "waste-water treatment modeling." The previous 3 biannual wwtmod's were held at Mont-Sainte-Anne, just outside Quebec City in Canada, but the latest in the series - WWTmod2014 - was held in the lovely European town of Spa, Belgium. In this blog I'd like to summarise a few of the many highlights of WWTmod2014, but first I'd like to digress a little to ponder the name and the focus of this seminar series.

WWTmod2008 was first concieved to be a follow-up to a series of modeling-focused seminars called "Kolle-kolle" which I'm told were an excellent set of seminars in the 1990's to discuss wastewater treatment models, from which the IWA's "ASM" activated sludge models were developed. Process models have come a long way since the 1990's, shifting from the realm of academia to mainstream design and operations also. Any consultancy worth it's salt will use process models to develop or refine their designs. In fact, it's all but impossible to design a good nutrient removal facility doing nitrogen and phosphorus removal without the use of models. A few stalwart old-scholers might argue differently but they're a fading voice. This has meant that the WWTmod seminars, from the very start, have pulled together academia and practitioners to discuss process models and these models are now at the heart of process design. Despite the name including "mod" in the title, the seminars very quickly shifted into discussions about the mechanisms and processes that go into the models and so I'd argue that it is now the premiere seminar for process designers and those wanting optimize their waste water plant operations (maybe using models to help!) I can't think of another conference that draws together the top researchers from universities with experts from practice, the way that it's done at WWTmod. If you're a university researcher wanting to understand the challenges of practice, come to a WWTmod seminar. If you're a practitioner wanting to discover the latest tools and techniques to overcome your challenges, come to a WWTmod seminar!

So, what were the highlights of the latest, WWTmod2014? The program covered a broad range of topics in wastewater treatment, from screenings and grit to model extensions for trace organics; the latest in nitrogen reaction pathways and current thinking on phosphorus removal; primary settler and secondary settler performance; integrated modeling and LCA. At the closing session, the chairman of the scientific committee, Ingmar Nopens, had a slide with a few "Useful Quotes and Concepts", so maybe I'll focus on those:

"Wipers versus Washers" - there's nothing like the topic of bum wiping to get a partly humorous and partly serious discussion going on wastewater treatment. It's not pleasant to discuss the fate of toilet paper but there are serious considerations when it comes to understanding the biodegradability of the material when it gets to the treatment plant. If it's not biodegradable, it uses up treatment capacity and increases the mass of residuals that have to be handled. If it is biodegradable, it's a valuable source of material for biogas generation. Ultimately there wasn't a consensus on its biodegradability, but on the whole it was thought that it wasn't too degradable within the wastewater treatment plant (despite what it says on roll!)

The "Drinker-Barman Concept" - trying to be a little radical, I suggested that the Monod equation, near and dear to the hearts of all who model biological processes, may be past its sell-by date and that consideration of diffusion may be key to shifting to simpler kinetics where the "intrinsic" half-saturation coefficient can be ignored. I'm already getting too much into the details here but needless to say I had to use a nice analogy involving beer to make my point and hopefully make it more palitable!

"Communism/socialism versus capitalism in biological processes" - Dr Zhiguo Yuan discussed how the models we use assume that substrate is shared evenly amongst the different organisms that use it (like socialism shares out everything) but in fact there is competition for the substrate that is akin to biological capitalism.

"Being within the law is not always the good thing" - Dr George Ekama has produced many of the most memorable quotes at these seminars. A few years back he said (I'll get it wrong, but hopefully close enough): "The main problem is to keep the main problem the main problem" and he's also the source of the wipers quote above. His latest quote may sound revolutionary but it's really meant to highlight that some of regulations that govern treatment standards don't always result in the best overall environmental solution. In particular we discussed the focus on carbon emissions at wastewater treatment facilities and legislation pushing them to reduce energy use and carbon footprint when in fact the carbon emissions per person served by a treatment plant is peanuts - maybe less than 1% of their overall emissions - and they'd be better driving less or using less hot water.

Beyond these highlights another fun part of the conference was the use of twitter to post comments. I confess I was a twittering fool but it was fun! Check out the hashtag #wwtmod2014 to see!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Trends for 2014 and Beyond...

It's the turn of the year and the TV is full of "specials" recounting the events of 2013 - new births, famous people passing away, sports triumphs and tragedies, conflicts, other newsworthy events - and then there will be folks pondering what 2014 might hold for us all that's different from 2013. If we're honest, nobody can predict what 2014 will be like. Perhaps it will be a quiet and uneventful year, or perhaps there will be some major new conflict or natural disaster that will throw us all for a loop. Maybe aliens will contact us. OK, I'd better stop now as I'm stretching the speculation a little too far! Probably because I've watched one sci-fi movie too many.

I thought it would be interesting to ponder some possible trends in wastewater in North America for 2014. I'll likely be way off on some of these but hopefully one or two will hit the mark, so here goes with my predictions for 2014 and beyond!

1. Increased use of Envision for truly sustainable design

Released last year, the Envision evaluation scheme from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI), has the potential to radically shift the way we look at wastewater treatment design. In the same way that LEED caught the imagination of the building industry, I can see this really taking off over the next few years. I might be a bit biased because I'm helping to keep track of the roll out of Envision within Black & Veatch, but I really do think it will take off and most folks who know anything about it seem to hold a similar opinion.

2. Nutrient Removal becomes the norm for everyone

A couple of years ago there was a push by an environmental group to have nutrient removal included as part of the definition for "secondary treatment." Within our industry there was a strong push back and it never got anywhere. At the time I remember thinking that the main reason it failed is that they were advocating for extremely low nutrient limits near the limit of technology (like 0.1 mg/L phosphorus and 3 mg/L nitrogen or something like that - I forget the exact numbers). If, however, they'd proposed a more reasonable set of limits for basic nutrient removal, say 2 mg/L of phosphorus and 15 mg/L nitrogen, then they may have had more traction within wastewater treatment professionals in general. In 2013, WEF and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) started discussions on a Nutrient Roadmap, which may start to pave the way for more folks doing nutrient removal and maybe one day everyone doing it? Until then, there are plenty of regulations that will push utilities into doing it anyway, so nutrient removal will become the norm rather than the exception.

3. Increased focus on EDCs,PPPs, ECs, MCs, AC/DCs (whatever you want to call them!)

When I started work in the wastewater industry back in the early 1990's, the new hot topic was endocrine disrupting compounds (EDC). Fast forward 20 years and the new hot topic is still EDCs, though they've added some other trace organic compounds to the list and the name keeps changing! (Micro-pollutants this week maybe?). But recent pilot trials at Swiss wastewater treatment plants to put in advanced equipment to remove these nasties makes me think the focus and action on these trace contaminants will only increase.

4. Life-Cycle Thinking comes of age

I've written on life cycle assessments (LCA) in a previous blog, so I probably shouldn't keep banging on about it, but I do think that we'll see more and more use of Life-cycle thinking in our business. In fact the Envision method I mentioned already advocates LCA for assessing potential environmental benefits.

5. More resources online

Where do I start? Wefcom, WaterWiki, Waterworld, Engineers Toolbox... there's so much information on the internet focused on water and wastewater, I hardly know where to start. Maybe that's a good topic for a future blog? But for sure we'll see more and more useful information online and in electronic format.

OK, so those are my predictions for 2014. What are your predictions for 2014? How about other parts of the world?