The vital role of biotechnology for effective and sustainable water purification

Industrial wastewater is increasingly under the regulatory microscope. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has for the first time proposed setting limits on the disposal of wastewater into the environment containing a family of chemicals known as PFAS.

The agency’s focus on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds can be expected to have far-reaching effects across all industries. They are ubiquitous, present in many consumer and industrial products since the 1950s as they increase resistance to heat, stains, water and grease.

The EPA initially targeted releases from sites in the organic chemical, plastics, and synthetic fiber industries that manufacture PFAS. It also determined that Effluent Limit Guidelines (ELGs) are warranted for the metal polishing industry to deal with PFAS releases from chrome plating facilities. The EPA’s decision to limit PFAS in wastewater is part of a larger policy effort to reduce their presence in drinking water because of their links to 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, industries are facing tougher discharge limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants.

Regulations to protect the environment and public health and safety often encourage innovation, and that’s exactly what industry needs to solve these real-world problems. It was only 50 years ago that a South African civil engineer named James Barnard began considering ways to use microorganisms – biology – to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater. Until then, the common 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 many varied climates. Barnard’s discovery sparked new concepts of nutrient removal and water reuse, pioneered by advances in biotechnology.

A boost from biotechnology

Biotechnology often gets a bad rap because of its links to social concerns about genetically modified foods. But there is much more to biotechnology. One of the most promising uses of biotechnology is actually waste management.

Advanced biotechnology enables biological solutions to traditional water and waste treatment problems such as sludge management, degradation of recalcitrant compounds and biogas production. It also helps users implement more sustainable wastewater treatment systems. In the water business, we like to call it a ‘win-win’.

Biological wastewater treatment spans many industries from food and beverage to petroleum due to the generation of organic pollutants. However, many pollutants, especially very complex chemical compounds, are not efficiently degraded by microorganisms or resist biodegradation and can compromise water quality. This is where bioaugmenting helps.

Bio Augmentation is the practice of adding actively growing specialized microbial strains that can improve treatment performance and help biodegrade recalcitrant molecules in the polluted environment. These beneficial microorganisms are the vitamin supplements of the wastewater industry. If your body lacks vitamin D, for example, it’s cheaper and more effective to take a supplement than to spend more time in the sun.

Bioaugmentation strategies are also appropriate in our current times. We live in a world where everyone wants it “in their own way”, influenced by algorithms that personalize experiences.

Microbial and enzyme solutions offer more personalized treatments tailored to the exact conditions of a treatment plant. Customers are looking for custom solutions because biological treatments are sensitive to any changes in the plant’s environment, including temperature, oxygen levels and organic concentrations.

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

Bio Augmentation has been shown to increase the effectiveness of processing a range of compounds, including ammonia, fats, oils and fats. Ammonia removal is one of the most important and difficult processes to maintain in wastewater treatment plants. It can be affected by various environmental factors, shock loading, toxicity and loss of solids. The success or failure of the process depends on the ability of the microbial community to degrade ammonia, tolerate harsh conditions, and respond quickly to nitrification disturbances.

Another benefit of bio augmentation is that it can target specific compounds such as hydrocarbons and phenols, which are common pollutants in the refining and petrochemical industries but are not easily degraded by native microbial populations in wastewater treatment facilities at these sites. To compensate for low biological activity, these facilities use powdered activated carbon to absorb undegraded contaminants, which increases the cost of operations.

Sustainability is the way to go

As the scrutiny of more complex contaminants, such as PFAS, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other recalcitrant compounds found in industrial wastewater, intensifies, regulators and industry are looking not only for remediation options effective, but also environmentally sustainable solutions. Indeed, with the rapid increase in industrialization and urbanization around the world, driving demand for cleaner water, sustainability has become a priority in wastewater management to meet the growing global demand for water. clean water. Since fresh water supplies are limited, the industry is increasingly considering recycled water as an important strategy to ensure sustainable operations.

Biotechnology is already playing a role in reducing the environmental footprint of wastewater treatment. Examples include biological solutions that help reduce dredging costs and improve wastewater lagoon capacity and products that enhance anaerobic digestion to help increase biogas yield, reduce solids generation and support the proper functioning of the digester. These products allow customers to make their operations more sustainable, reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and help them produce cleaner water.

We are perhaps only 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 help make it urgent to convert lab-scale operations to economically viable, industrial-scale equivalents.

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

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

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