Chandler Johnson, chief technology officer at World Water Works, a manufacturer of specialized wastewater treatment solutions, discusses the growing importance of research and development activities in finding the next generation of solutions for our wastewater challenges.
Q: Please give an overview of the role of R&D in wastewater over the years. Has it changed since you began your career?
A: In my opinion, research and development is the lifeblood of a company. Starting with the R&D needed to introduce a new solution, you keep adding, tweaking, and changing to continually upgrade the solution.
For example, WWW started about 15 years ago, and the original R&D done on the standard Dissolved Air Flotation (DAF) system was key to introducing a major innovation into the marketplace.
Since then, we continued our R&D efforts—we are now on version 7—and learned how to make the system easier to operate and install, and to fabricate it more inexpensively while even improving quality. Later, we invested in computer modeling software to conduct additional value engineering. Not only did we use the software to perform structural analysis, [but] we also performed advanced hydraulic modeling to fine-tune the design to assure peak performance on every aspect of the process.
One result from this work was an improvement to the collection laterals in the system to ensure uniform distribution at a wider range of flows. The result is a more forgiving system that performs better. But, we don’t stop in our engineering center—we take our knowledge into the field to test and challenge it. For example, we recently reexamined aspects of our microbubble system in the field to investigate new ideas on microbubble generation and particle capture. This has led to our new Ideal DAG™ (Dissolved Air Generator) design, which further reduces the chemical requirements to yield a lower life cycle cost system.
Many of our advancements over the years have actually come from being in the field and getting our hands dirty. This experience is invaluable to understanding our lab and modeling research.
All in all, I’d have to say that both lab and field R&D initiatives are responsible for bringing WWW’s innovative DAF technology from 1998 to today’s global leading Ideal DAF™ technology of today. The company is equally committed to R&D on its expanding product lines. What is really exciting is that beyond optimizing and advancing single process units, WWW is combining some of its core technologies such as the Ideal MBBR-DAF and DEMON in certain configurations to achieve energy neutral plants and produce products from wastewater.
Q: Would you say the industry in general invests enough in R&D on new technology?
A: One of the insights our founder had was that there was limited investment in R&D in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and he reasoned that a company committed to R&D and innovation could really do well in the space. Today, the market has changed, and certain large companies are spending heavily in R&D. It’s a bit rarer for small- to medium-sized companies to do so. And, our approach of combining lab and theoretical modeling with a “getting our hands dirty” style R&D is unique. In my opinion it helps to generate more customer-centric innovations faster.
Q: What is your philosophy on R&D and what are the types of R&D projects you tend to favor and why?
A: Our focus has been on biological treatment—nurturing of and separation of that biology. These systems take energy and much of our R&D efforts are looking at applying different technologies at a WWTP to make it energy neutral. We are extremely excited by the prospect of providing systems that generate enough electricity to run themselves. We are focusing on the future and reducing clients’ operational costs by installing pieces of the puzzle that will allow them to be energy neutral.
Q: Can you give us some examples of a few WWW R&D initiatives over the years?
A: The newest product coming out of our R&D work is an energy-positive wastewater treatment solution that we’ve called WATER ENERGY™. It’s a next-generation wastewater treatment design in which wastewater plants actually become power plants and sources of water. We think it has greatest applicability to municipal wastewater treatment and water reclamation facilities. Imagine every wastewater treatment and water reclamation facility with the ability to send power back to the grid!
The technology produces clean water by removing organic impurities and suspended solids—all while consuming 40 to 70 percent less energy than other technologies. The system produces more energy from the anaerobic digester than has been achievable in the past. It truly provides an alternative energy solution, producing renewable energy from our wastewater while delivering clean water. This patent-pending process promises to deliver a minimum of 5 to 30 percent energy positive wastewater treatment.
It’s also a great example of the important role ongoing R&D plays, and why World Water Works continues to invest in this type of technology of the future. We truly believe that the best place to look for alternative energy solutions is in wastewater. That’s why we are working on other technologies that provide similar energy-positive wastewater treatment solutions tailored for specific types of wastewater and water reclamation facilities.
Q: Are there other R&D projects you’ve worked on over the years that have become successful products?
A: Absolutely. I mentioned some above. But one of the most successful is the combination of the MBBR—DAF technology. World Water Works has invested in R&D efforts to look at the separation of biological cultures specifically from an MBBR, which tend to be smaller and more difficult to separate. These R&D efforts have led to the Ideal MBBR-DAF™, which has been extraordinarily successful, producing tremendous results at extremely low life-cycle costs. WWW has more installations of this combination than, I think, all other companies combined.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your R&D facilities, including the staff, the physical equipment you have, as well as any future changes you envision.
A: We are a relatively small firm and most of our R&D efforts are taken on by people within our organization that have other responsibilities as well. Depending upon the idea and research the team may consist of engineers, scientists, operators, mechanics, and other disciplines, which provides unique perspectives on problem solving. We do research at our facility in Oklahoma, but, as I mentioned, we also tend to do a lot of R&D in the field at different facilities to prove the ideas in real-time instead of the lab.
For example, we are working on the Ideal DAG evaluation, looking at the pump’s efficiency under different scenarios to verify a new concept we’re working on for a certain type of client with dirty water. We are also looking at upgrades to the DAF technology that will bring in pumps with lower horsepower that can provide equal to or better efficiencies for this application, which is activated sludge thickening.
We use the evaluation process to generate the data needed to compare a new option to other available alternatives. That’s key to our approach—we do not go to market before documenting that a new concept will work. We offer process guarantees, so of course we won’t put our name on a product without data to prove the system efficacy.
Q: Do you have any other new R&D projects in the wings?
A: We are working on a new technology that produces a high quality effluent at a fraction of the total energy consumption of conventional wastewater treatment plants. The new technology, developed by Aquanos Energy Ltd. and further enhanced by World Water Works, captures and harnesses the symbiotic relationship between bacteria and algae.
This natural process results in a 90-percent reduction in plant energy, reduces a wastewater treatment system’s operational costs by 40 to 60 percent, and significantly reduces capital expenditures. It is far more sustainable than other biological wastewater treatment systems that use microorganisms to treat wastewater, so it is ideal for use in India and other energy-constrained countries. It is also the stepping stone to the Holy Grail™, technology which yields a valuable product from wastewater.
Within the next year, we are planning on announcing some game changing technology for nutrient removal. So, stay tuned!