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Thinking About New Water Technologies Differently

Written by Janette F. Kennedy

OWC1.25Nature is an extremely robust system and, when stressed, will adapt to stabilize the environment. Unfortunately, such adaptations do not always favor the human species. The unprecedented success of humans in modifying and controlling the physical environment around us is the cornerstone of our modern world. However, such success has not come without peril. An increasing population and an associated increasing scarcity of clean water is one of many global problems that the human race must address in the coming years. The lack of clean water is rapidly coming to the forefront as an issue that must be addressed immediately on a global scale.

Not only is population growth driving the increasing need for clean water, but also the increase in urban populations is creating geographic “hot spots” in water demand. While high demand areas are straining local water resources, rural areas are seeing local water sources diverted to support urban demand. Regional rural/urban water distribution models are in constant flux and are very sensitive to the availability of clean water supplies. Such models can rapidly deteriorate if there is not enough clean water to go around. It has become apparent that conservation and increases in water use efficiency will not be enough to solve this problem, even in the short term.

New approaches to water purification processes and associated breakout technologies are needed now. It is clear the industry is listening as evidenced by the proliferation of new water technology startups and more water-focused venture firms peppering the investment landscape. As discussed in a previous blog post, Micronic Technologies is a research and development company in Virginia’s southwest region that has patented a novel transportable mechanical evaporation/vapor compression/condensation technology that can purify water in one pass without using filters, chemicals, or membranes at low pressure and temperature. Technologies such as this represent the future of water purification.

To overcome barriers to entry, these innovative technological systems must have physical and performance advantages over many of the established methods of water treatment. By reducing system complexity, newer technologies can anticipate reduced maintenance and repair costs. These performance parameters open up a range of potential opportunities and hold the possibility of a fundamental transformative shift in the current approach to water purification at the local level. The vision becomes localized and decentralized. Needed are customized water purification and distribution networks structured around self-contained water purification nodes, which are implemented by using new innovative water purification technologies. In the long term, such localized nodes would be well suited to provide clean water to remote rural areas at a lower cost than possible for distant centralized treatment facilities. These customized networks would supplement the much larger centralized water treatment facilities that don’t have the resources and/or the economic incentive to reach such remote areas.

When designing these systems, companies will not only need to keep in mind simplicity of design but also address the need for removal of multiple constituents including emerging contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products as well as disinfectant by products (DBP). Emerging contaminants in the environment represent a global pollution problem—over 631 different pharmaceutical agents or their metabolites have been detected in the water resources in 71 countries on all continents. Evidence exists that emerging contaminants are already damaging the environment and in the long term, they could cause widespread damage to human health.

Many reports have recently appeared about emerging contaminants in water supplies, rivers, lakes and other waterways. For at least two decades research has been conducted in both Europe and the United States to ascertain the long-term health effects of emerging contaminants and DBP contamination in public water supplies. The executive summary of the President’s Cancer Panel (PCP) annual report to the President includes the following statements:

“Pharmaceuticals have become a considerable source of environmental contamination. Drugs of all types enter the water supply when they are excreted or improperly disposed of; the health impact of long-term exposure to varying mixtures of these compounds is unknown.”

“Numerous reports have shown that drugs and drug residue that end up in water supplies typically are not filtered out by municipal treatment plants.”

Even though current water contamination levels are measured in parts per million or parts per billion, there is no way to know just how much exposure people are actually experiencing. People drink contaminated water, shower in contaminated water, and cook with contaminated water, so it’s illogical to suggest that there’s no harm being caused by widespread exposure, even at “low” doses, especially when the exposure is a combination of dozens of different drugs that have never been tested in combination. People are not the only beings that are affected by pharmaceutical contamination, either. The world’s aquatic ecosystems are being negatively impacted as well. So why haven’t such contaminants present in the water supply been more widely publicized or regulated? This is mainly because these types of contaminants are hard to detect due to limited access to expensive state-of-the-art analytical instruments and even harder to remove due to lack of cost effective and innovative treatment technologies. As a result, there is essentially no effective governmental regulation.

Newer technologies, such as ozonation or carbon filters, are effective at removing pharmaceuticals and other new chemicals but are processes that are prohibitively expensive for public water treatment facilities. This has piqued the interest of Micronic engineers and Virginia Tech researchers who, through preliminary testing, have shown that the Micronic process may in fact provide a low cost solution for effective removal of pharmaceuticals and DBP’s in water along with other multiple constituents, using their one pass solution. A recent test by Dr. Kang Xia’s Environmental Organic Chemistry Laboratory at Virginia Tech has shown that the Micronic process was able to remove, at ~100% effectiveness, all 19 emerging contaminants that were detected in a wastewater treatment plant secondary effluent. Hopefully, continued efforts will provide feedback with supporting data to determine the extent and severity of this problem while also proving Micronic’s innovative technology as a cost effective solution.

While a better understanding of the situation can provide public service water authorities and governmental regulatory bodies with the scientific foundations on which to build an effective response, it will be innovative wastewater purification technologies that will become the vital component in the future of water management. As these new technologies are implemented, effluent limits could be continuously lowered and, in the longer term, finally eliminate environmental releases.

Janette F. Kennedy

Janette Kennedy serves as Senior Environmental Analyst with Micronic Technologies, Inc. located in Southwest Virginia. Her experience in water regulation and compliance began in 2011 as an Environmental Compliance Assistant in the Coal Industry. She holds a Masters degree in Environmental Law and Policy from the Vermont Law School of South Royalton, VT. She also holds an undergraduate degree in Acquisition and Contract Management. She currently sits on the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board as a Governor appointed at large member. Janette is also a publicly elected Director to the Lonesome Pine Soil and Water Conservation Board. Janette is currently working with state and local agencies on several pilot projects in the area of Acid Mine Drainage, Slaughterhouse Wastewater, and Utility Wastewater Management. Janette resides in Wise, Virginia.

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