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“Innovation,” as a management concept, was recently found by somebody or other to be, at the moment, the most over-used buzzword of them all. But you probably know that already, having been subjected to a steady stream of innovation rhetoric through B-to-B media or other venues. (Some amongst us will even remember the quality craze of the 1990s.)
Nevertheless, real innovation was on display at WEFTEC, the 85th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference of the Water Environment Federation being held in New Orleans and ending October 3. The event’s Innovation Showcase featured several companies looking for breakthroughs related to the water-energy nexus. It’s interesting to note the disparate origins of these companies, but also something of a commonality of purpose: finding alternative to carbon-based energy extraction based on water and waste.
Hydrovolts, out of Seattle, for example, grew out of a study of tidal power feasibility financed by the city of Tacoma, Wash. The study concluded that utility-scale tidal power generation was challenging and not economically competitive at the Tacoma site. Burt Hamner, whose company conducted the Tacoma study, realized that turbine technology could be successful at a smaller scale in rivers, canals and waterways.
He therefore founded Hydrovolts. The company has invented and is patenting new in-stream hydrokinetic turbines. At the event, Hamner described the technology as a kind of “micro-hydroflow” technology and discussed the issues involved, including minimum flows and possible challenges attaching small power equipment to the grid.
Another company, named BlackGold Biofuels, headquartered in Philadelphia, is moving forward with infrastructure deployment to do resource recovery from wastewater, i.e., grease traps found in restaurants and elsewhere in the hospitality industry.
According to Emily Bockian Landsburg, CEO and co-founder, about “five billion gallons of such waste is generated each year by U.S. cities, and there is liability at every touch point, including the danger of overflows, not to mention the significant wear on infrastructure.”
BlackGold opened the first R&D facility exclusively dedicated to deriving biodiesel from sewer greases. Since then, BlackGold says it has developed an FOG-to-Fuel technology and successfully road-tested its fuel in more than 50 vehicles. The first commercial FOG-to-Fuel system came on line in 2010 at the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
A third company worthy of mention — amongst many others — is New Sky Energy out of Boulder, Colo., which won Imagine H2O’s early revenue track for a technology that takes two major industrial waste products from industry — carbon dioxide and salts — and creates important chemical compounds called carbonates. Carbonate uses include in plastics, glass, building materials, flue gas emission control and water treatment.
New Sky says it couples electrochemical and chemical technology to convert salt wastes and CO2 into valuable chemicals, using waste salt, water and carbon dioxide and with outputs that include valuable, carbon negative products.
The process couples electrochemical and chemical technologies in a proprietary cycle that does the conversion by means of “breakthroughs” that include chemical and physical precipitation for selective ion recovery of useful products from complex brine solutions; transforming CO2 emissions into profitable carbonates; and a low-energy process for sweetening of natural gas and production of value-added products.
The keynote speaker at WEFTEC was Jim Carroll, an author who “links future trends to innovation and creativity.” So we’ll conclude by saying, at end of day, management buzz words may come and go, but true innovation is ever-lastingly on-going.