The Future of clean: water disinfection gets a high-tech makeover 

Is chlorine on the chopping block? The UK's water industry is exploring revolutionary disinfection methods like "lightning in a jar" and AI-powered solutions. CIWEM dives into the winners of a groundbreaking competition that's rethinking water treatment for a sustainable future.

In a major breakthrough for clean technology, the UK's water industry is embracing bold solutions for the future of water treatment. The Water Discovery Challenge, a first-of-its-kind competition funded by water regulator Ofwat, awarded £4.5 million to innovative projects that aim to revolutionise water disinfection and wastewater management.

This competition breaks new ground by seeking entries from innovators across all industries, fostering collaboration and accelerating the development of sustainable water solutions. The way we disinfect drinking water is on the cusp of a revolution, from "lightning in a jar" technology to hydrogen-based disinfection and AI-powered water quality analysis, the winning projects showcase the immense potential for a more sustainable and efficient water sector.

Chlorine comes with high energy demand

The UK, like many countries, treats vast quantities of water daily, adhering to some of the strictest global standards. While chlorine plays a crucial role in ensuring water safety, its industrial production and transportation require significant energy. The Water Discovery Challenge aimed to tackle this challenge head-on, seeking bold solutions to revolutionize water treatment for a more sustainable future.

Across the UK, over 15 million litres of water are cleaned daily. The water is treated to some of the strictest standards in the world and passes 99.97% of tests.

Before being supplied to consumers, the untreated water is filtered for harmful bugs, pesticides and chemicals using a variety of techniques, all of which ultimately involve chlorination – using small amounts (less than one milligram per litre) of a chlorine-based chemical to ensure the water is clean and safe to drink.

Like many chemicals, however, the industrial production of chlorine uses a lot of energy and requires transporting to treatment sites across the country.

These innovations hold the promise of transforming water disinfection. They could eliminate the chlorine taste and odour associated with current methods, while also significantly reducing the environmental impact of this energy-intensive process.

The Ofwat Innovation Fund

The Water Discovery Challenge is part of the Ofwat Innovation Fund, a £200 million initiative run by the economic water regulator Ofwat. This fund aims to foster innovation within the water sector, encouraging the development of solutions that address environmental concerns, tackle leaks and spills, and ultimately transform water services for consumers. By opening the competition to innovators across industries, the Water Discovery Challenge marks a significant step forward, promoting collaboration and accelerating the pace of progress in the water sector.

Helen Campbell, Senior Director for Sector Performance at Ofwat said: “This competition was about reaching new innovators from outside the sector with different approaches and new ideas, and that’s exactly what the winners announced today are doing. The products and ideas recognised in this cross-sector challenge will equip water companies to better face challenges of the future – including achieving sustainability goals and meeting net zero targets - all while providing the highest-quality water for consumers.”

Ten teams, bringing together fresh perspectives from outside the water industry – including academia and technology – received a share of prize fund. This funding allows them to showcase how their innovative solutions can tackle the sector's most pressing challenges.

The winners: in focus

Here's a closer look at some of the competition winners:

Anamad (partnered with University of Southampton, Kingston University, and IEG):

Bringing "Lightning in a Jar" to water treatment, this innovative company utilises cold plasma, similar to the electrical spark you see when igniting a gas hob. This technology effectively disinfects water at much lower operating costs than chlorine. It requires no additional chemicals or replacement parts, and boasts low energy consumption. An added benefit of the technique is that it helps to eliminate harmful "forever chemicals" before they enter the environment.

Highlighting the benefit of a lack of waste, Dr Matthew Illsley, CEO at Anamad said: “Non-thermal plasma is a low-maintenance, affordable process designed to clean water by eliminating persistent and emerging pollutants from any source of water without generating a large carbon footprint. There is no waste created in the process and it ensures forever chemicals are removed before they enter the wider environment.”

Origin Aqua with Cardiff University:

Introducing the hydrogen-based solution, Andrew Cox, Chief Technology Officer and Founder of Origin Aqua, behind Freeox, said: “Unlike chlorine production, which is energy intensive, Freeox can be generated at point-of-use, reducing energy demand, while only creating water and oxygen byproducts- meaning there’s no chemical taste or smell. We’re excited to be upscaling and commercialising to test this game-changing technology which holds the potential to transform water treatment across the world.”

Utilising a hydrogen-based process to clean water, the only byproducts generated are water and oxygen, eliminating the environmental impact and taste/odour issues associated with chlorine, offering a cleaner, more cost-effective, and energy-efficient alternative to filtration.

Mounce Hydrosmart Ltd with University of Sheffield and RBMTS Ltd:

Using AI to speed up water quality analysis, Mounce Hydrosmart's ACQUIRE system harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to analyse water quality reports. This allows for faster identification of effective solutions when water quality incidents occur, ultimately accelerating response times and improving overall water safety for consumers.

Waterwhelm and AtkinsRéalis:

An innovative membrane technology was developed for brackish and seawater desalination powered by low-grade waste heat. This new technology for desalination and water reclamation, designed to operate at low pressure, reduces both initial capital investment and ongoing maintenance expenses. Powered by waste heat, this circular solution achieves the lowest-ever rate of electricity consumption and CO2 emissions, contributing to a more sustainable and cost-effective approach to water treatment.

School of Chemistry at University of St. Andrews:

Researchers from the School of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews are developing fuel cell technology to capture and destroy greenhouse gases at wastewater treatment sites and to simultaneously generate useful green electricity.

Resimac Ltd partnered with Schur-BPH:

Resimac Ltd has developed a rapid and cost-effective solution for rehabilitating rising sewer pipelines, combining spray lining techniques with cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) technology to create a fully structural liner inside the existing pipe and, in doing so, eliminating the need for extensive excavation during the rehabilitation process.

Cranfield University:

Optimising phosphorus removal and recovery from wastewater, this innovative coagulant-free technology addressing environmental concerns, and enhances resource efficiency in wastewater treatment processes.

Lancaster University:

A new sustainable technology using nano-composites for dissolved organic carbon (DOC) removal at water treatment works, this technology enhances water quality and ensures environmental sustainability by efficiently addressing organic contaminants in the water treatment process.

ICMEA-UK with Aston University and Costain Group PLC:

ICMEA-UK Ltd's Renewable Energy Via Aqueous-phase Reforming (REvAR) technology extracts energy from organic-rich wastewater (e.g. sewage sludge) in a sustainable and cost-efficient way. The technology is rapid, compact and creates an energy surplus and cleaner water.

digiLab Solutions Limited and Yorkshire Water:

senSite UQ’s Sensible Sensor Siting uses Uncertainty Quantification and AI optimisation techniques for sensor deployment and monitoring in the wastewater network, creating a cost-effective solution for water companies, suppliers and the supply chain.

A sustainable future for water

The Water Discovery Challenge is a great example of how innovation can revolutionise the way we manage water. These advancements hold immense potential for a more sustainable and efficient future.

With safe and clean drinking water being a fundamental human right, fostering solutions that minimise environmental impact and ensure long-term water security is more critical than ever.

CIWEM welcomes these types of competitions, as they serve as a springboard for continued innovation, paving the way for a brighter future for water and the environment.

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