A team of international scientists has developed an innovative method to treat wastewater by creating a water system that transforms harmful elements into renewable energy and materials.
Their new technique focuses on incorporating a distinctive water system that uses both artificial and natural systems with a treatment pipeline to change potentially dangerous elements—such as carbon, phosphorous, and nitrogen—into sustainable materials.
Their system, titled REPURE, has demonstrated the potential to revolutionize wastewater systems used for agriculture and energy production worldwide. The research team was led by water engineering experts from the University of Exeter, located in southwest England.
“Existing design schemes for wastewater systems focus merely on the technologies,” said Professor Xu Wang, co-author of the study and part of Exeter’s Center for Water Systems. “If the system design could benefit from the abilities of nature, it could ensure infrastructure development within ecological constraints and could maximize other benefits.”
“Therefore, our REPURE design includes the carbon capture and nutrient retention services provided by soils, as they were found to help reduce adverse environmental effects during the land use of the biosolids and reclaimed water. More importantly, this new design can be promoted in many places, as soil is a major component of the planet and exists in nearly every country,” Wang said.
An increase in city populations in recent years has put pressure on wastewater facilities to find more sustainable methods for water treatment.
Currently, removing pollutants from water requires a large amount of energy. In the U.S. alone, this process takes up 3.4 percent of energy consumption—making it the third largest energy consumer in the country.
Recent estimates also point out that approximately 20 percent of the global demand for phosphate—used in fertilizers, food, detergents, personal hygiene products, and construction—could be met by recovering phosphorous from wastewater.
“This integrative study advances our understanding and approaches of how to regain balance between satisfying human demands and maintaining ecosystems,” said Professor David Butler, a co-author of the study.
The research team believes that their new REPURE design would allow wastewater to be treated without the need for energy at all. This would work to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the water treatment systems, as well as provide attractive feedstocks for productions of renewable energy, fertilizers, biopolymers, and other green chemicals.
“Restoring and improving harmony between human activities and nature is essential to human well-being and survival,” said Butler. “The role of wastewater infrastructure is evolving towards resource recovery to address this challenge.”