Wastewater Has A New Future — Thanks to Canadian Innovation and the GE Store

The path to energy neutral wastewater treatment is in fact a smooth, winding roadway through forest and wetlands to an isolated, low-rise office building and manufacturing plant in Oakville, Ont.

Built in early 2000, the 200,000-square-foot Canadian headquarters of GE Water & Process Technologies stands apart in its surroundings because the environmentally sensitive property has no municipal water or wastewater service. The company could build here only because it had the technical wherewithal to design and implement a self-sustaining water treatment and supply system. All wastewater is treated onsite using GE technology and cycled back to flush the toilets or pumped into outdoor ponds where it’s available for irrigation and, if ever needed, fire fighting.

In the world of industrial and municipal water treatment, GE Oakville further stands apart for the technology at the heart of that system — a water-cleaning membrane bioreactor (MBR) that utilizes an advanced hollow-fibre ultra-filter called ZeeWeed*. Oakville didn’t invent MBR, but it revolutionized its design, effectiveness and applicability — reducing the time, space and energy required to remove contaminants from wastewater. “It’s a global-leading technology,” says Glenn Vicevic, executive leader of product management at GE. “It’s one of the most interesting developments in the wastewater treatment field in the last 25 years.”

Now comes a new distinction — for a second technological breakthrough that brings further revolutionary cuts in the cost and power demands of water treatment. And this time, the improvement is so dramatic that it’s sparked an initiative to cut the energy footprints of entire wastewater treatment plants down to zero.

GE Oakville undertook a development challenge to introduce technology that could drastically reduce energy consumption in the treatment of wastewater. The result is a product called ZeeLung*. It requires just one quarter of the energy used in conventional aeration to enable the biological treatment of wastewater — the single-biggest energy user in the overall municipal wastewater treatment plant process.

This past summer, GE Water installed ZeeLung at its first demonstration site, treating 500,000 gallons (1.9 million litres) of wastewater per day in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago’s O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant. That program runs through June 2016. Several other ZeeLung demonstration sites are planned around the world in 2016, and GE expects it to be in full-scale commercial production by the end of the year.

But that’s not all. The ZeeLung breakthrough also spurred Vicevic and his Oakville colleagues to set an even bigger challenge: to develop an entire treatment process that doesn’t consume any externally generated electricity at all. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do you do this?’” Vicevic says. Given the power consumed by wastewater treatment — in the United States, for example, it accounts 3% of all electricity — the potential cost and energy savings would be enormous.

The answer lay in finding a suite of GE water and power products that, when combined with ZeeLung’s low-energy treatment, could create a closed-loop system that powers itself. Ultimately, this took Vicevic and his team to other GE products and businesses in Hungary, the U.K., Austria and the United States. The result is now a GE-wide vision of the energy neutral wastewater treatment plant, available as a package or a là carte through the GE Store.

While the technology required is state-of-the-art, the energy loop itself is simple:
1. Wastewater enters plant and insoluble organics are separated with enhanced primary treatment;
2. Wastewater then undergoes further treatment to remove remaining organics and nutrients with ZeeLung Membrane Aerated Biofilm Reactor (MABR);
3. Extracted organic wastes are processed in a Monsal (GE-UK) advanced anaerobic digester and converted into biogas;
4. The biogas powers a Jenbacher* gas engine (GE-Austria) that creates the electricity to run plant, including the Zeelung.

“We can even produce additional energy to put back into the grid,” Vicevic says.

Vicevic says that while the thinking behind this concept began in Oakville, “as soon as we realized the way to develop an energy-neutral wastewater plant was to harness biogas, it became obvious that we’ve got to talk to our friends in Jenbacher*, who have the world’s most successful engine that converts biogas to electricity.”

From there, we collaborated with engineers involved with all the equipment to understand the technology and how it would work together. “We decided that with these products’ synergies we could produce something better for our customers and society, and we decided to move forward with our development of it,” he says.

Vicevic says GE expects users in the U.S., Canada, Europe and the rest of the world to first adopt these new technologies in piecemeal fashion, via retrofits. “They already have existing wastewater plants where they’ve poured lots of concrete, they’re not about to start from zero to make an energy neutral wastewater treatment plant,” he says.

In the developing world, however, it could be a different story. “There, it’s possible they may be building new plants. In which case, I would not be surprised to see them leap forward to energy neutral wastewater plants.”

As that future unfolds, back in Oakville, Vicevic is focused on bringing that concept’s low-energy centerpiece, the Zeelung, into full commercial production. Next summer, when the Chicago demonstration has run its course, he is hopeful that MWRD will have seen enough to consider adopting ZeeLung MABR as a potential technology. “As an organization, they’ve set a goal to be energy neutral by 2023,” he says. “It fits in really well with our technology.”

Naturally, he also hopes operators at other demonstration sites coming on line will do the same. “If people don’t know what’s do-able, they’re not going to dream about it,” he says.

*Trademark of General Electric Company; may be registered in one or more countries.

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