It’s hard to find anyone in the process world who doesn’t have something positive to say about innovation and the need for it.
The water and wastewater industry is no exception. Hardly surprising when there are numerous examples of companies seeking to revolutionise products and practices. Yet takeup has followed a distinctly uneven pattern.
This year the trade association and representative body for the industry, British Water, produced evidence that the sector as a whole needs to come to terms with a lack of achievement in this key area.
The annual UK Water Company Performance Survey asked contractors, consultants and suppliers to rate their clients’ performance in 11 areas.
One might suppose that at a time when the industry and others are being hit by the economic contractions and upheavals emanating from the pandemic lockdown and Brexit, while battling against harsher strictures from regulator Ofwat – the results would be encouraging.
Quite the opposite: innovation ranked by far the lowest scoring of the 11 areas of activity polled in the study.
Incoming chair of British Water, EPS Water general manager Shaun Stevens, offered the rueful observation that the score was symptomatic of ongoing frustration felt in the supply chain with regard to uptake by the water companies and their delivery partners.
“While innovation has been a core theme in water companies’ dialogue for many years, issues including underfunding, adversarial commercial models and out-of-date technical standards can be blockers to the adoption of new technologies,” he states.
It was a sentiment echoed by industry spokeswoman Karyn Georges, head of consulting at global innovation and technology consultancy Isle. She points out that, with the regulator insisting on no increases in customer bills during the next investment phase, companies had to be “inventive in what they do and go for it”.
Both Ofwat and the Environment Agency are getting tougher on pollution; the former wants a one third reduction in surface water pollution within five years, the EA is pushing for zero. And with the options for revenue raising limited, the key will be technology that can drive cost-saving efficiencies.
Water companies deserve some sympathy. They need to be bold but innovative technology represents a leap in the dark and possibly more wasted resource. They need to know that promising products and systems are scalable and cost effective to use and implement. Plus, they must be able to synthesise any new developments with the vast legacy of assets and practices for which they are responsible.
Patent spending WPL’s Hybrid-SAF process technology offers a guide to the right approach for launching innovative products in the water industry.
The technology involves a submerged moving-bed, fixed-film reactor that the manufacturer asserts can treat wastewater with greater energy efficiency compared to the submerged aerated filters traditionally employed.
Additionally, it offers a tighter site footprint which enables the environmental compliant product to offer an additional sustainability gain.
While innovation has been a core theme in water companies’ dialogue for many years, issues including underfunding, adversarial commercial models and out-of-date technical standards can be blockers to the adoption of new technologies
Shaun Stevens, water general manager, EPS
A key concern for the business, says technical director Andrew Baird, was asserting and protecting what WPL saw as the unique aspect of the technology.
The manner in which the wastewater is recirculated within the biozone and achieves an even distribution of flow across the media was a key benefit the firm wished to exploit commercially. This meant several years spent upon developing the patent before bringing the system to market.
“The technology was in continuous development for three years, and the patent process took more than two years. Extra investment and product adjustments were required to get it patent-ready – and, commercially, the numbers had to add up,” explains Baird.
“There is little point patent-protecting if nobody is going to buy the product. As soon as you file, the status is recognised as patent-pending and you are protected.”
There is, of course, the added advantage of patent tax relief, he points out – equivalent to more than 5% of the profits earned. But there is also an ongoing improvement process to fund.
WPL has invested in a PhD student, sponsored to research efficiency enhancements and opportunities. And while one virtue of the modular system is its quick installation, work is underway to improve the times required for this.
Scalability remains, as in every area of manufacture, one of the greatest challenges. The best and most efficient product needs to be capable of working at industrial as well as test level.
Yorkshire Water boosted its reputation for innovation with an ambitious pilot scheme aimed at combating that bane of all water utility firms: leakages.
Working in collaboration with telecoms giant BT and Stantec, Yorkshire Water is harnessing NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things) pilot technology using BT’s network with the aim of revolutionising leak management, prevention and detection.
YW chief strategy and regulation officer Nevil Muncaster explains that the smart water network pilot will integrate the rich data from new and existing sources to present it in a single visualisation platform that includes a digital twin of the water network.
The platform will use artificial intelligence to cluster data sets, and remove false positives, to better inform decision making for asset and operational management.
Deployment of some 4,000 acoustic, flow, pressure and water quality monitors will create what the company claims is the UK’s largest smart water network pilot.
Partners in the scheme will provide technology, with Gutermann acoustic loggers, Technolog pressure loggers and Honeywell flowmeters utilising the NB-IoT network to transmit their data.
Says Muncaster: “It’s great that through this innovative pilot we’ve been able to accelerate the introduction of NB-IoT to the area in Sheffield. NB-IoT has the potential to provide greater access for local businesses to take advantage of the advancement in IoT technology.”
The emphasis on cost savings to enhance companies’ bottom line has increased inevitably in an era when the water industry regulator has capped customer charges. This in turn has fed the sustainability narrative: saving on waste by making products and processes recyclable, more efficient and effective.
The fact that the activities of the water industry permeate other process sectors has increased the opportunity to access the benefits of innovation further afield.
Bu?rkert’s remedy for water treatment at the Newsprinters plant in Broxbourne – among the largest paper printing sites of its kind in the world – proved a decisive cost saver and cut back on one supply chain headache for the client.
The plant had installed a reverse osmosis system to cope with Hertfordshire’s notoriously hard water to achieve the required level of purification. However, the water hardness had to then be increased to a higher level for specified German requirements.
Bu?rkert’s water blending solution to combine reverse osmosis with the mains supply involved installing a conductivity sensor that was linked to a flow control valve on the raw water line. This eliminated the weekly cost required to purchase 1,000 litres of re-hardening chemical with the environmental gain on account of no longer needing to transport the chemical to the plant.
It was soon apparent that the new system was able to accurately maintain the water hardness at exactly the point we needed
Paul Wesley, group technical manager, Newsprinters
Group technical manager at Newsprinters Paul Wesley commented: “It was soon apparent that the new system was able to accurately maintain the water hardness at exactly the point we needed. As a result, we have made a significant saving in terms of our chemical requirements and reduced our CO2 footprint at the same time.”
A more direct benefit to the water sector was exemplified by Siemens’ work with chemical manufacturer Kemira.
The Bradford-based manufacturer has benefited from an integrated solution that allowed it to become self-sufficient in production of one of its key raw material ingredients – acrylamide.
Previously this was sourced from a sister plant in the Netherlands. But with the onset of Brexit this presented a supply chain issue. Importation required ten lorryloads daily by North Sea crossing, equivalent to 1,600 tanker loads per year.
Siemens’ digital solution achieved the required self-sufficiency, boosted peak production at the factory by 50% and enabled a reclassification of the site from Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations lower tier to upper tier.
Additionally Kemira’s polyacrylamide products are key contributors for the cleaning of municipal and industrial wastewater. Innovation in other sectors can bring additional, lateral benefits in the water sector.