6 Steps to Digitizing Sewage

Flush it and forget it? Not if you’re looking for ways to reduce the billions spent on municipal sewage treatment every year. Here’s how scientists are using the latest digital technology to tackle the age-old problem of—ahem—poop.


Get Your Sensors On

Sanitation is a costly business. U.S. municipalities spend nearly $100 billion a year installing, upgrading, and operating their water and sewage treatment systems. “We’ve got great treatment technology, but we don’t always operate it in the most efficient fashion,” says Jason Nichols, a chemical scientist GE’s Global Research Centre. Nichols and his team wanted to find ways to reduce sewage treatment costs, so they started by installing state-of-the-art chemical sensors inside one plant.



Do the Math

The sensors generate a pool of data that helps scientists create cloud-based algorithms, which mimic the biochemical processes occurring inside the plant—the first step to creating a digital twin. The early results presented possibilities for real progress, and it wasn’t long before the team started getting clarity through their simulations.



Build the Digital Twin

A digital twin of the treatment process can help plant operators understand almost anything that happens in the facility, including the source of a nasty smell. “A well-operated plant smells like fresh soil, or compost,” says Nichols. “A fetid smell is an indication that something is going wrong.” By using computerized real-world information and algorithms to re-create the plant in the Cloud, the digital twin gives operators a real-time view of the plant’s murky inner workings.



Hunt for Hidden Patterns

Once he digital twin starts churning out data, the scientists launch into analysis mode. In this case, the GE team discovered that many treatment plants waste money by pumping too much air into ponds of partially treated sewage. They were also able to raise early warnings about high nitrate or phosphorus levels, which could help protect municipalities from polluted waterways.



Find the Fix

With real-time data in hand, solutions become simple for plant operators, who can make adjustments on the fly. “We can see reasons why certain things might be happening and propose solutions,” says Nichols. The digital twin doesn’t just alert operators to a problem; it also identifies where exactly where the problem is located. That capability can speed up response times for repairs, eliminate costly fines, and even help ensure cleaner waterways.



Save Big

Digitizing the sewage treatment plant helps operators make the most of the technology they already have in place, and can even allow them to better predict the cost of future plant expansions. As well, there are money-saving opportunities to be had by leveraging other innovations. For example, connecting GE’s membrane bioreactors and other technology to a plant’s digital twin could save operators up to $300 million more. And if we built a digital twin of every sewage treatment plant in the world, we could save $4 billion to $6 billion globally over the next decade.

Want more stories like this delivered to your inbox?


Related Stories