February 2012, Vol. 24, No.2

Patenting a new identity

News.jpg Water and wastewater utilities are not only operations that provide an important public works service to customers. Some also are trying to redefine themselves as business enterprises. They are seeking money-making opportunities outside of rates and finding better ways to make their operations more efficient and cost-effective. Many of these innovative utilities are accomplishing these goals by patenting in-house technologies and partnering with companies to manufacture and market their products.

Finding the right partner 

Nearly a decade ago, Clean Water Services (CWS; Hillsboro, Ore.) patented a unified fermenting and thickening process it had created in-house. The patent was released to the public domain, said Nate Cullen, engineering division manager at CWS, but the technology drew little interest.

So, when the utility decided to seek another patent nearly 10 years later — this time for another technology invented by CWS senior operations analyst Rob Baur — CWS went a different route.

Instead of opening to public domain the patent for its waste activated sludge stripping process that removes internal phosphorus from biosolids, the utility sought a corporate partner to manufacture and market the technology.

“We knew that our technology was compatible with technology by Ostara,” said Bill Gaffi, general manager of CWS.

Ostara Nutrient Technology Inc. (Vancouver, British Columbia) had invented the Pearl® Process, which recovers struvite (ammonium magnesium phosphate) from wastewater treatment plant biosolids through controlled chemical precipitation in a fluidized-bed reactor, according to the company’s website. The final product, highly pure crystalline pellets, can be used as fertilizer. The CWS stripping process, when combined with Ostara’s reactors, greatly reduces the buildup of struvite in downstream treatment systems, according to a company fact sheet.

But in order to partner with Ostara, Gaffi said the utility had to create a separate entity: the Clean Water Institute.

“It’s hard for utilities to partner with private companies,” Gaffi said, and the institute gives CWS the flexibility to do this.

Not only is contracting more complex when you’re a utility, but confidentiality agreements also can be an issue, Gaffi said. “We needed to be able to secure trade secrets,” he said. “We don’t want to have to reveal our bid price because of some [Freedom of Information Act] request.”

The utility’s board already approved of the idea of creating the institute. The board had noticed that over time CWS had received numerous requests for information and visits from all over the country and abroad about its in-house technologies and projects, Gaffi said.

“We had a lot of intellectual property, and the board wanted us to better position ourselves to promote that intellectual property,” Gaffi said.

The board and CWS also had an interest in “recouping our ratepayers’ investment in innovation,” said Mark Jockers, government and public affairs manager at CWS.

In the 3.5 years that the institute has existed, CWS has sought more patents. Cullen said it currently has two patents pending, both for additional ways to prevent the formation of struvite in wastewater treatment.

Gaffi and Jockers said that because of the institute, CWS also functions as a consultant, providing technical assistance and training to other utilities.

“The institute is in its infancy, but our financial prognosis looks positive,” Gaffi said.

CWS loaned approximately $400,000 to the institute for startup. “It’ll take about a year for us to be in the black, but that’s still good for most startups,” Gaffi said.


Protecting your property 

While some utilities patent technology to open opportunities for additional revenue, others do so to protect intellectual property.

In September, American Water Works Co. Inc. (American Water; Voorhees, N.J.) received a patent for its “Optimized Nutrient Removal From Wastewater” process. According to a Sept. 28 American Water press release, the process provides a “more affordable and sustainable way” of treating wastewater.

Eugenio Giraldo, technical manager for wastewater at American Water, said the utility wanted to deploy the technology across a wider range of operations, including its internal plants and plants it manages for external clients. So, securing a patent that would protect its intellectual property at all these locations was very important, he said.

Giraldo said the patenting process was relatively quick. “We have patent attorneys who do this stuff every day,” he said. “I’m always surprised at how fast it’s done.”

In a similar way to CWS, Giraldo said that American Water is considering seeking a corporate partner for its optimized nutrient removal patent.

“We are a private utility, but we don’t have a manufacturing division like Veolia [Veolia Water North America; Houston] or United [United Water; Harrington Park, N.J.],” Giraldo said. “We would consider partnering with another company to get access to that manufacturing capability.”

In addition to the nutrient removal technology, American Water has two other patents pending, Giraldo said — one on the drinking water side and one for biosolids management.


Spurring innovation at all levels of the operation 

American Water and CWS are large utilities that obtained patents for in-house technologies, but even small water and wastewater utilities can pursue this process. The City of Newberg, Ore., is seeking a patent for the sawdust-drying process developed in 2010 at its wastewater treatment plant by then senior operator and current interim public works director Dain Eichel.

The city had invested a great deal of money in compost reactors, but the existing system had proved inefficient. The wastewater treatment facility took sawdust and mixed it with biosolids from its belt filter press to produce compost that must be 42% solids, Eichel said. But the sawdust, which comes from moist Douglas fir native to the northwestern United States, was only 50% solids, and the biosolids were only 20% solids. “The rest was water,” Eichel said.

To achieve this 42% solids compost, Eichel said he and other operators were drying the sawdust and biosolids about 10 hours daily. Eichel decided he had to figure out a way to make either the sawdust or the biosolids drier so the plant could get rid of more biosolids daily. Past estimates from engineering consultants had shown that the facility would need to install equipment that cost millions of dollars to do this. Eichel wanted to find a cheaper solution.

Eichel said he searched online and found a rotary-drum dryer that is used to dry sawdust at pellet mills and wondered why it never had been used in biosolids composting. He did a series of calculations and saw that the dryer could shorten the drying time. He told his supervisor, and the city then contacted an engineering firm to confirm Eichel’s calculations.

“The engineer eventually determined that not only would the system work, but it would be the best alternative possible,” Eichel said.

The system was installed for approximately $800,000. The dryer is running at the same speed the operators feed the sawdust. The facility now can process 3 to 5 times more biosolids daily, and run time has been reduced significantly, Eichel said. It now takes less than 3 hours to dry compost, compared to the 10 hours it used to take. The new system also has eliminated odors, and because the plant can aerate with less horsepower, it is saving energy. It now costs less than half the money the facility spent before to run the biosolids composting equipment.

The city has received an energy rebate from the Trust of Oregon and U.S. Department of Energy for this project. It also has received an Energy Department grant because the facility uses 20% of the dried sawdust to fuel the motor for the dryer. “It’s considered a renewable energy,” Eichel said.

Also, “the dryer has created bacteria growth like we have never seen before,” Eichel said. The bacteria feed on the dried sawdust. Before the dryer was used, the sawdust contained too much water for the bacteria to consume, Eichel explained. Now, the plant doesn’t have to try so hard to produce Class A compost, he said.

Eichel said he hopes his drying process can be used throughout the Northwest. “Many facilities around here went away from composting because of the problems associated with drying and because it was seen as too expensive to operate,” he said. “Now, it can be done inexpensively.”

Eichel said he appreciated that his superiors were willing to give his idea a chance. Many other utilities would not give the same leeway to “some yahoo operator,” Eichel said.

But Daniel Danicic, Newberg city manager, said the town tries to foster an environment of innovation and participation in its employees.

“What is unique in our culture is that we always involve the treatment plant staff in the design process for new and rehab construction,” Danicic said. “I have always felt that the users of the system are key stakeholders.” He said that too many times he has seen an “improvement” designed by a consultant that had to be fixed by operators after it was constructed. “So, the involvement of the staff encourages them to think through the design and to look for alternative solutions,” he said. “Sometimes, I think they view it as a competition to outthink the engineers. This ends up with better designs and solutions for the city.”

Now, the city is trying to figure out how to capitalize on its current solution. “Marketing a patent is certainly new territory for us,” Danicic said. “So, we are starting to reach out to other firms to determine their level of interest and capability to be our partner. We are looking for someone who can guide the marketing and implementation of our process. We are not set on an engineering firm. It could be a vendor or even a venture capitalist.”

The hope is to bring in some revenue to the city, Danicic said, but Eichel has an additional goal.

“We would like to find a partner who could make these compost facilities because it just seems like the right thing to do,” Eichel said. “It’s green.”

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T  

Distilling energy from wastewater


A Scottish whisky distillery installs biogas engines to help its facility become energy-independent

William Grant & Sons (North Lanarkshire, Scotland) may have been crowned the 2011 Distiller of the Year and International Spirits Producer of the Year at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in November, but it is the installation of four biogas engines at one of its distilleries in Girvan, Scotland, not its award-winning whisky, that is drawing attention from the environmental community. Thanks to the installation of the fourth gas engine, a Jenbacher J620, the distillery will run independent of the power grid, according to GE (Fairfield, Conn.), the manufacturer of the biogas engines. Combined, the engines will provide 7 MW of energy to the distillery. The facility also receives its energy from a gas turbine running on natural gas, said a GE spokesperson.

Using these engines to operate on biogas, which is produced from residual malt materials used in the distillation process to make alcohol, will “solidify Grant’s as one of the cleanest and largest independent power producers in the region,” according to an Oct. 24 GE press release.

“Our ability to generate onsite power at the Girvan distillery has been critical in our continued efforts to reduce our carbon footprint while increasing efficiency,” said Conn Lynch, Girvan site leader for William Grant, in the press release. “The addition of the J620 also qualifies this site for renewable obligation certificates, once again adding to our extensive green credentials.”

William Grant commissioned the first two smaller engines, Jenbacher 420s, in 2009, and the third engine in summer 2011. The fourth engine was being commissioned at press time. The installation was completed at the end of 2011, said Kerstin Lienberger, spokesperson for GE Power & Water. The fourth engine is expected to be operational this month.

Clarke Energy (Liverpool, England), a distributor partner of GE, delivered all four engines. The first three were preassembled for the most part, Wagner said. “This was a turnkey power plant,” he said. But because of the J620’s large size, the engine had to be built in the distillery’s engine room, he said.

The J620 will reuse the whisky wastewater to power the facility, according to the GE press release. This wastewater is typically cast off during the manufacturing process. Using the wastewater “will reduce the waste generated during the distilling process and allow the facility to operate at increased efficiency,” according to the press release. “Meanwhile, the engine’s exhaust also will be captured and recovered as thermal power to produce steam used in the distilling process.”

The J620 engine has the ability to run in excess of 43% electrical efficiency while operating on biogas. As such, the J620 enables customers to utilize local and abundant waste materials for independent power generation, according to GE.

“With our gas engine technologies, companies are empowered to meet aggressive carbon reduction goals while improving operating costs,” said Rafael Santana, president and CEO of the GE Gas Engines division of GE Energy.

Clarke Energy is not only doing the installation but also providing maintenance for all the engines, Wagner said. At press time, GE was not slated to do any more installation projects for William Grant.

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T 


©2012 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.