November 2012, Vol. 24, No.11

Research Notes

EPA Competition Spurs Environmental Innovation and Resource Recovery Tools

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annual Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program competition has been helping fund and develop environmental innovations. 

The two-phase competition helps take ideas from conception to market, according to an EPA news release. This year, EPA awarded seven Phase II contracts of about $300,000 each, totaling more $2 million. These companies first submitted ideas in 2011 and won Phase I contracts of up to $80,000 each to develop their concepts into technologies. Then, they were able to apply for Phase II of the competition, the news release says. 

This year four of the seven Phase II winners produced technologies for the water and wastewater sectors. 


Using ultrasonic waves to detect cracks in pipes  

FBS Inc. (State College, Pa.) won for its technology that detects defects in water and wastewater pipes using ultrasonic waves. The technology can penetrate structures with multiple layers and detect defects under concrete lining, according to EPA’s SBIR – Phase II website. 

During Phase I, FBS demonstrated the “feasibility of axial crack detection using circumferential-guided waves and defect detection in a concrete-lined pipe using axial guided waves,” the website says.  

In Phase II, FBS will develop two prototype systems. The first will be a circumferential-guided-wave tool to detect axial cracks by traveling inside a steel pipe. The second combines guided wave focusing techniques with magnetostrictive sensors for screening defects in concrete-lined pipes. The company expects to be able to bundle the two systems into a hand-held device and couple that with an ultrasonic package or other commerically available platform, the website says. 


Improving gas production from anaerobic digestion 

TDA Research Inc. (Wheat Ridge, Colo.) developed technology that uses waste gas from anaerobic digesters to generate energy while preventing groundwater contamination and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the news release says. The technology is a vacuum swing absorption system that uses a low-cost, high-capacity carbon dioxide absorbent to convert biogas to pipeline-quality methane.  

During Phase I, TDA demonstrated the feasibility for the technology to produce pipeline-quality methane from biogas in bench-scale experiments and show economic viability through simulations and analysis, the website says. 

For Phase II, TDA will build and test a subscale prototype unit, scale up production of the sorbent, and conduct a field demonstration in actual biogas derived from wastes, the website says. This technology could be used in wastewater treatment and other industries that use anaerobic digestion and want to sell pipeline-quality natural gas instead of burning biogas on-site, the website says.  


Treating emerging contaminants  

Advanced Diamond Technologies Inc. (Romeoville, Ill.) developed technology to treat emerging contaminants in drinking water. The technology uses boron-doped ultrananocrystalline diamond (BD-UNCD®) electrodes to energy-efficiently destroy organic contaminants at low costs. 

During Phase I, the company showed the technology’s ability to overcome other electrodes’ shortfalls including inadequate rates of destruction of refractory molecules, unreliable operation below 10 °C, generation of large quantities of oxygen and hydrogen, fouling and limited lifetime of electrodes, and an inability for electrodes to be reverse polarized, the website says. 

For Phase II, the company will use these electrodes to build and test electrochemical anodic oxidation process (EAOP) cells and systems that can eliminate contaminants of emerging concern. The research will investigate electrochemistry of diamond under EAOP conditions and reactions, and tradeoffs between cell design and electrode geometry, the website says. 


Working to detect landscape and groundwater contamination in the field  

Lynntech Inc. (College Station, Texas) won for developing automated, field-deployable environmental monitors to help clean up and restore contaminated sites, the news release says. The company developed a portable analytical device able to analyze a variety of organic and metallic contaminants in environmental samples. The technology conducts sample preconcentration, separation, fluid transfer, and detection with an emphasis on microfluidic components and processes, the website says. The system has detected parts-per-billion levels of toxic metal contaminants in water samples as well as trace levels of organic contaminants. 

During Phase II, the company will develop an automated system capable of detecting both metal and organic contaminants in groundwater. 

Find more details about all the Phase II winners at

Combining Wastewater Treatment with Algal Biofuel Production Saves Energy

Combining wastewater treatment with algal biofuel production changes these energy sinks into energy savers, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, and the Austin Water Utility.

By looking at the entire wastewater treatment system and the entire algal biofuel production pathway, researchers quantified the energy return on investment (EROI) for the systems separately and together. They hypothesized that integrating the two net energy consuming operations would result in one net energy-positive facility because of the synergistic benefits.

On its own, conventional algal biofuel production requires significant inputs of nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon dioxide, and water; and wastewater treatment alone requires significant energy inputs, the study says. The researchers calculated that operating independently, EROI was 0.42 for an algal biofuel production process and 0.37 for wastewater treatment, the study says. To be net energy-positive, EROI needs to be greater than 1.

But the study found that “by combining the two processes, energy inputs can be significantly reduced because outputs from one system serve as the inputs for the other.” Combining wastewater treatment and algal biofuel production amounted to a 1.44 EROI.

“This energy savings and production represents an offset of nearly the entire operating energy cost of wastewater treatment,” according to the study.

The article, “Energy Return on Investment for Algal Biofuel Production Coupled with Wastewater Treatment,” appears in the September issue of Water Environment Research and can be downloaded for free.

Water Environment Research allows open access to one article per issue on a range of important technical issues such as nutrient removal, stormwater, and biosolids recycling.