The vital role of biotechnology in efficient and sustainable water purification


Industrial wastewater is receiving increasing regulatory attention. For the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to set limits on the release of wastewater containing a chemical called PFAS into the environment.

The agency’s focus on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds is expected to have broad implications across the industry. They have been ubiquitous since the 1950s and are found in many consumer and industrial products as they increase resistance to heat, stains, water and grease.

The EPA’s original target was emissions from sites in the organic chemical, plastics, and synthetic fiber industries that produce PFAS. It also identified the need for the metal polishing industry to develop Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) to address PFAS emissions from chrome plating facilities. EPA’s move to control PFAS in wastewater is part of a broader policy development effort to reduce their presence in drinking water because of their association with adverse health effects.

Limiting PFAS in wastewater will be a challenge. After all, these substances do not break down in the environment. At the same time, industry is dealing with tighter emission limits on nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants.

Regulations to protect the environment, public health and safety often encourage innovation, which is what the industry needs to address these real-world problems. It was only 50 years ago that a South African civil engineer named James Barnard started thinking about using microbes—biology—to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from used water. Until then, the standard practice was to use chemicals to remove these nutrients.

Today, biological nutrient removal is used in thousands of wastewater treatment plants around the world in different climates. Barnard’s discovery sparked a new concept of nutrient removal and water reuse led by advances in biotechnology.

The push of biotechnology

Biotechnology is often criticized for its association with societal concerns about genetically modified foods. But there’s a lot more to biotechnology. One of the most promising uses of biotechnology is actually waste management.

Advanced biotechnology can provide biological solutions to traditional water and waste treatment challenges, such as sludge management, degradation of stubborn compounds and biogas generation. It also helps users implement more sustainable wastewater treatment systems. In the water industry, we like to call it a “win-win”.

Biological treatment of wastewater involves many industries, from food and beverages to petroleum, due to the production of organic pollutants. However, many pollutants, especially highly complex compounds, are not efficiently or biodegraded by microorganisms and can affect water quality. This is where biofortification helps.

Bioaugmentation is the practice of adding actively growing special strains of microorganisms that enhance therapeutic performance and help biodegrade stubborn molecules in polluted environments. These beneficial microorganisms are vitamin supplements for the wastewater industry. For example, if your body is low in vitamin D, taking a supplement is cheaper and more effective than spending more time in the sun.

Biofortification strategies are also appropriate for our current era. We live in a world where everyone wants to be “on their own way,” influenced by algorithms that personalize experiences.

Microbial and enzymatic solutions are available for more customized treatment according to the exact conditions of the wastewater treatment plant. Customers are looking for individual solutions because biological treatment is sensitive to any changes in the plant environment, including temperature, oxygen levels and organic matter concentrations.

For example, surfactants are required for cleaning in almost all industrial facilities, but they can cause serious problems in wastewater treatment plants. At high enough concentrations, they can cause foam and cause floc breakdown. If surfactants get into the effluent, they can cause violations and surcharges. They can also cause sewage toxicity issues. Surfactants are degradable, but the right microorganisms must be present and functioning for this to happen.

Biofortification has been shown to improve the processing efficiency of a range of compounds, including ammonia, fats, oils and greases. Ammonia removal is one of the most important and difficult to maintain processes in wastewater treatment plants. It is affected by a variety of environmental factors, shock loads, toxicity and solids loss. The success or failure of this process depends on the ability of the microbial community to degrade ammonia, tolerate harsh conditions, and respond quickly after nitrification is interrupted.

Another benefit of bioaugmentation is that it can target specific compounds, such as hydrocarbons and phenols, which are common contaminants in the refining and petrochemical industries but are not easily degraded by the local microflora in these site wastewater facilities. To compensate for poor biological activity, these facilities use powdered activated carbon to absorb undegraded pollutants, which increases operating costs.

Sustainability is the way forward

With increased scrutiny of more complex contaminants found in industrial wastewater, such as PFAS, drugs, pesticides, and other stubborn compounds, regulators and industry seek not only effective remediation options, but also environmental sustainability plan. In fact, with rapid global industrialization and urbanization driving the need for more clean water, sustainability has become a priority in wastewater management to address the growing global demand for clean water. With limited fresh water supplies, the industry is increasingly looking to reclaimed water as an important strategy to ensure sustainable operations.

Biotechnology has already played a role in reducing the environmental footprint of wastewater treatment. Examples include biological solutions that help reduce dredging costs and increase sump capacity, as well as products that enhance anaerobic digestion to help increase biogas production, reduce solids generation and support healthy digester operation. These products enable customers to transform their operations to be more sustainable, reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and help them produce cleaner water.

We may only be scratching the surface of the potential of environmental biotechnology to initiate a fundamental shift towards more sustainable solutions in the water and waste industries. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are helping drive the urgency to transform lab-scale operations into economically viable industrial-scale equivalents.

At Univar Solutions, sustainability is more than an aspiration. Our approach to delivering the next generation of sustainable solutions is at the heart of how we do business today and in the future. Like many companies, our commitment to a forward-looking and holistic sustainability journey supports our efforts to help keep global communities healthy, clean, fed and safe. Sustainability will continue to be an important driver for global industrial water treatment.

John Fulcher is Director of Water Treatment at Univar Solutions, a global chemical and ingredient distribution company.

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