Using light to fight the pollution

21st of March, 2018
Elīna Karaseva, RTU

Researchers of  Riga Technical University have developed a zero-energy technology for treating wastewater of pharmaceutical companies from a particularly persistent organic pollution, which the traditionally used biological treatment cannot manage.

Investments of pharmaceutical companies into the development, including the modernization of treatment plants, show their responsible attitude to the environment. Andris Šutka, Lead Researcher of the Functional Materials Technology Research Laboratory of Riga Technical University (RTU), points out that despite companies preventing untreated industrial wastewater entering into the nature, wastewater from chemical industry often contains organic compounds, which the bacterial or the membrane technology cannot degrade. Their concentration in water after the traditionally used biological treatment is not large, however, once in the nature and aggregating, the effects of pollution may become significant and affect, for example, the human endocrine system. «In fact, the membrane technology and absorption are physical processes that do not destroy the pollution but transfer it to another environment; we mean a technology that eliminates the pollution completely,» he adds. The technology bears the name of «Z-Surface».

The team of researchers lead by A.  Šutka has created and patented a system of iron and calcium compound photocatalysts, which destroys the contamination in sunlight (system of photocatalysts Fe2O3/Ca2Fe2O5). It is also validated for treatment of different contaminated waters. During the investigation, RTU scientists cooperated also with one of the Latvian pharmaceutical companies using its wastewater in the laboratory studies.

Clean water is one of the 17 UN sustainable development goals; its realisation takes a number of steps including efforts to limit the release of harmful substances into the water. «Z-Surface» developers anticipate that in the coming years, the European Union might impose a stricter regulation regarding water quality requirements.

Involvement of co-owner of «Alina Ltd»

Dāvids Štēbelis, an experienced mentor, business strategist and entrepreneur, and a co-owner of «Alina», which manufactures innovative clay additives and has attracted a seed investment of more than half a million euro in the end of last year, has joined the team of researchers in order to turn the results of the research into a market-attractive product. The project is implemented within the programme «Support to the commercialisation of research results» administered by the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA). The programme is focusing on the commercialization of research results owned by the research organisations in Latvia or abroad. The aim of the project is to develop a technologic solution and functional smart coating materials for removing toxic and hardly dividable organic compounds from wastewater. It is intended to develop photocatalyst coatings (and reactors), which are active in the visible light, with the aim to use solar light as an energy source for the treatment, as well as to produce a demo reactor, which can be integrated in the factory wastewater system.

Cheaper and environmentally friendly

A. Šutka emphasizes that photocatalyst is not suitable for treatment of highly polluted wastewater. «In the textile industry, there is so much dye-staff in the water as a result of  fabric dyeing that even the light does not pass through it,» he explains. Such pollution needs the traditional, proven methods first, for example, the above referred biological treatment. However, the photocatalyst is efficient in splitting persistent compounds, therefore, it can be applied in the post-treatment of wastewater to catch particularly persistent compounds, which the bacteria have not been able to destroy. «There are also other effective methods, but they are very expensive, consume a lot of energy, and the companies choose to omit the post-treatment,» the researcher continues. In his opinion, the situation could be completely different if the technology was cheaper. «We are working on a zero-energy method, which can be operated with solar light. If we could offer a new solution that achieves results without significant capital investment and is energy-efficient and environment-friendly – it would be a victory!» he thinks.

Photocatalyst was discovered already in the 1970s, but only titanium dioxide has been commercialised as a catalyst. «It prevails (about 95 %) in the photocatalyst market with the total value of one billion. However, titanium dioxide is active only under UV light. Anything else failed to break into the market because there are a lot of preconditions, for example, the used compounds have to be non-toxic, cheap, naturally common, and the method has to be appropriate for industrialization. Our advantage is that the compound consists of nontoxic elements, which widely occur in the nature. Even if our material would spread in the treated water due to some circumstances, it would only become more ferrous and harder, because the compound consists exclusively of iron and calcium,» reveals the researcher. Since these are widely distributed chemical elements, the raw material is cheap.

Business expert role

A. Šutka believes that the results of the research can be commercialized, and during the coming years within the programme managed by LIAA they will be used for optimization of the technology and in making decisions on how to use it and to whom and in what way to sell. At the same time, he discloses that D. Štēbelis as a man with business experience has an important role in deciding on what the final product will be: currently it is estimated that it may be a powdered material for use in a reactor or  nano coating of surfaces, which could be used for water disinfection and organic pollution treatment.


The great aim and the real aim

Dāvids Štēbelis, mentor, business strategist and entrepreneur:

«Photocatalyst and its application in water and air purification is a promising direction. Assuming that it is possible to purify water from organic and bacteriological pollution using sunlight, this technology can certainly be called sustainable – it is powered by sunlight, there is no chemical pollution, and the photocatalyst manufacturing does not cause damage to the environment. The circular economy and sustainability planning principles, which assessed the resource re-use, are very well supplemented by technologies such as «Z-Surface».

Today, it is too early to comment on which of the application directions is most prospective. Each technology has a number of development stages – within the «Z-Surface» research project we still have to define this technology. We have to choose the application with the lowest technological requirements, so that we can maximally shorten the time necessary for the commercialisation of the technology. In our opinion, the destruction of organic compounds in water is our big task, which opens a multi-billion market potential; at the same time, water disinfection is much more realistic because it has less technological requirements, and the disinfection has many alternative solutions at the moment.

If we have to assess the participants of the water treatment market and the supply chains, a number of things become obvious. We cannot be the ones, who cover all functions: produce the photocatalyst, construct a water treatment reactor and sell it to the end customer including the servicing. Without partnerships with industry participants, we will lack resources necessary for entering the market. Within the technology transfer programme, we have assessed these risks and defined our core competence, what we keep to ourselves, and what we give to our partners. Our aim is to define and test the «Z-Surface» technology, as well as to make a small demo plant, which shows the viability of the technology. These preparations are enough to take the first significant step towards the technology commercialisation. The commercialisation is planned by establishing a spin-off company, the main competence of which should be «Z-Surface» production and selling to customers who design, manufacture and service water treatment plants.

My main task is to establish the link with industry, which means that we constantly inquire about the customer needs and problems. I am the man, who meets, talks, and interviews customers. My tasks include ensuring that the decisions about the technology development are based on facts, not assumptions. I rather have to strive to be a quality discussion partner with the research team to provide the customer / market perspective in the planning process of the research.»


Treatment of pharmaceutical industry wastewater

The aim: to develop a technological solution and functional smart coating materials for treatment of wastewater from toxic and hardly dividable organic compounds.

Team: Andris Šutka, Mārtiņš Vanags, Alina Neščerecka, David Štēbelis, Guntis Kuļikovskis

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21st of March, 2018 at 11:17

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