Innovations: Waste not, want not

2 engineers have transformed wastewater treatment to a process that is both profitable and environmental.

arava water reservoir (photo credit: Courtesy)
arava water reservoir
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We're all familiar with the horror stories about the Yarkon River that runs through central Tel Aviv. In 1997, four Australian athletes died from complications that directly stemmed from their exposure to the highly polluted water after falling in when a bridge collapsed. Several years ago, a textile company turned the Yarkon blue with wastewater that contained toxic paint. Last year, a detergent plant spilled a large container with soap into the water that created a layer of foam and killed thousands of fish. This spring, a girl who overturned her boat in the river almost drowned when many bystanders hesitated to enter the water and come to her rescue. These are only a few of the detrimental effects that have occurred over the last decade because of irresponsible industries refusing to properly treat and clean their wastewater. As more pollutants continue to destroy our environment by seeping into groundwater, oceans and streams, the importance of properly filtering and disposing of wastewater is mounting. To help solve this urgent problem, Eytan Levy and Ronen Schechter cofounded Emefcy in 2007. The company, named for the central component of its technology, microbial fuel cells, aims to revolutionize the economics of wastewater treatment by transforming it from an expensive process into one that is sustainable and perhaps even profitable. "If you tell a company that it has to spend $100,000 to build a new plant, it'll do it in a second. But if you tell it it has to spend $100,000 to treat its wastewater, it will not want to do it unless someone forces it to," says Levy, CEO of Emefcy. The current problems with wastewater management and treatment all boil down to one thing: money. "There are two major pains in the Western world as far as treating wastewater is concerned," Levy explains. "The first is the heavy consumption of electricity to aerate the water, and the second is dealing with the sludge that settles at the bottom, which has to be dried and disposed of in a costly treatment." ON THE surface, Emefcy's solution sounds simple. Microbial fuel cells feed on organic matter and produce clean energy as a byproduct of eating bacteria. Yet it has only been in recent years that technological feasibility made this solution possible. No stranger to the industry, chemical engineers Levy and Schechter founded AqWise in 2000. Today a leading company in wastewater treatment, its success was a catalyst for the pair to meet the new challenge of finding an economically feasible solution. "AqWise uses a completely different process that is energy intensive to remove all of the nutrients," says Levy. "Emefcy utilizes the energetic potential of organic material to create energy, and it only removes the organic waste, not the nutrients." As Levy explains, microbial fuel cells function like any other fuel cell with an anode and a cathode chamber. The anaerobic anode chamber is internally connected to the cathode chamber by an ion exchange membrane, and the circuit is completed by an external wire. As the bacteria in the water are broken down, electricity is released in the form of oxygen. The discharge of electrons in the water creates a current and this is the source of the green energy. Called the Megawatter system, it is an innovative solution that enables direct electricity generation or hydrogen production from wastewater. This innovative solution is attractive to industries because it eliminates the need for energy-intensive, high operating costs. Because the Emefcy wastewater treatment produces electricity or hydrogen, the industry may be able to cover its costs by reusing the clean energy or selling it to local power grids. According to Levy, the idea of being able to turn a traditionally expensive process into one that can actually make money is revolutionary. ANOTHER ADVANTAGE is sustainability, as it will permit treatment plants to practically disconnect from the power grid. It applies to a broad range of conditions, including wastewater with high salinity and high sulfate concentrations that are not suitable for conventional anaerobic processes (currently the only alternative for energy recovery from wastewater treatment). Levy points to the food, textile, petrochemical and biodiesel industries as potential markets. "This system is scalable and it can be customized to fit any existing wastewater treatment tanks with minor changes to the infrastructure, which makes it inexpensive and easy to install." While conventional biological denitrification of water and wastewater requires the presence of bacteria and the addition of organic carbon into the water being treated, the Megawatter system can perform denitrification without polluting the water. Although the process requires some energy, it produces two to three times more than it uses. The innovative technology holds an incredible amount of promise, but Emefcy has yet to see if its research in the academic lab will overcome the challenges involved with full-scale installations. The first pilot project is slated to begin later this year with Teva Pharmaceuticals here. "We have a huge amount of interest in the market from potential customers," Levy says. "It's an advantage to be Israeli in cleantech because we are world leaders in this field, but we are still seeking funding and we have many challenges ahead to meet before we will be profitable."