A Straight Path to Quality Water, Wastewater Processing Innovation

Our interlocking drinking water and wastewater industries see themselves as innovative and forward looking, but sometimes the public views us as more a part of the problem than the solution.

Our interlocking drinking water and wastewater industries see themselves as innovative and forward looking, but sometimes the public views us as more a part of the problem than the solution. With continued world population and industrial growth, sometimes the public seems mesmerized by the possibility of a future with “disease laden water” or “a world sopping with sludge”. The unspoken concern is that we have reached the tipping point where the sheer volume of waste may overwhelm our infrastructure.

Playwrights often express our deepest feelings more effectively than objective studies. Woody Allen’s play Side Effects has a speech some pundits feel may reflect our situation. “More than at any other time in history mankind faces a crossroads: One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Not a lot of hope there.

On the other hand, the public also has an entrenched scientific optimism. The popular press has articles on the “Age of Biology”, the “Miracle of Nanotechnology”, and other cutting edge areas. There is a great deal of speculation about how these technologies can be applied to world problems; but not much about water and wastewater processing incorporating them.

A Google search verifies this. The term “biotechnology” yields 237 million hits, “nanotechnology” produces 125 million hits, but “wastewater processing” generates only 9 million hits. That’s over an order of magnitude difference from top to bottom, and shows we don’t make the public’s radar screen. That’s a problem.

But there are good, logical reasons for this.

First, our interlocking industries do plan for the future. But most of our time is spent detecting and dealing with today’s problems and potholes. Even though we may be investigating exciting new technologies, ours is a quiet effort, a sure way to miss radar detection.

Second, allowing water and wastewater processing to share in scientific optimism must be balanced with the certainty that many promising new technologies fail. From fish protein concentrate feeding the world, to helicopters for commuting, there have been a host of ideas explored and abandoned. At one time or another, all were touted. Yet none came to fruition. Why? They missed the mark on effectiveness, dependability, or predictability, and often by only a small amount.

This reality dictates we move prudently to adopt new technologies. The potential consequences of failure are too dire and our commitment to the public is too deep. As a result, we may appear overly conservative, another sure way to be off the public’s radar screen.

Should we seek to be a strong radar screen signal? Yes. The inventiveness and ingenuity of our professionals is the only force integrating new science and technology to improve water and wastewater processing ... and keep the perceived waste capacity tipping point away.

To be viewed positively, we must communicate the juxtaposition of our industries’ innate caution with the inherent optimism of science.

Two recent personal experiences show the public wants to support us, given a reason. The first was a public seminar on research covering better ways to keep the natural cycle moving in the right direction, have fewer odd molecules and materials spin off it, and finally optimize the natural cycle’s sustainability.

Several science and technology areas of varying maturity were featured, from ready to implement to seems promising.

• Industrial research showing adding energy or work (filtration, electricity, heat, pressure) directly to processing systems can decrease overall energy usage.
• European work focusing on ammonia conversion to nitrogen gas without a carbon requirement.
Our own company’s work on bringing nature’s nutrient management tools to wastewater processing plants.
• University work accelerating environmental contaminant clean up.
• Industrial work refocusing mature technologies on water and wastewater processing.

The presentation’s optimism/caution mix seemed appreciated. Ten minutes were allotted for questions. But 60 minutes elapsed before questions ended.

The second experience was a trade organization presentation. Their goal was improved industry sustainability. The result was similar, high interest, expressions of respect, a desire to help.

Ultimately, it was clear both groups saw the wisdom of our industry’s prudent approach to new technologies. Let those working with marvelous molecular machines or savvy microbes speak optimistically. But for us, carefulness until a new science or technology meets our industry’s standards is the straightest path to quality innovation ... and should be applauded and supported.

As the public learns more about an industry, it becomes more interested and usually more supportive. The Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008. Hopefully that celebration can bring public awareness to our role in positively and prudently resolving the future of water and wastewater processing.

About the Author:
Ernest A. Childs, PhD, is President of ArchaeaSolutions Inc., a biology and technology firm focused on long-term contributions to wastewater processing. Over the last six years, he and his team have made significant inroads to understanding stoichiometry, leverage points, and management of nutrient and solids metabolism in wastewater systems; plus developing and marketing cost-effective implementation strategies.

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