Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Globally, 80% of wastewater is discharged into local environments with minimal or no treatment — water that could be recycled and reused. California-based startup Aquacycl's waste-to-energy solution protects water resources while helping companies reduce costs.
Water is arguably the most important factor in human development. However, only
0.5 percent of the water on
is available to use as freshwater. And that’s a problem, given that a
quarter of the world’s
population is already living in water-stressed
— a situation that is steadily getting worse. In the race to solve the climate
crisis and ensure sustainable development goals are reached, we ignore water
management at our peril.
Of course, governments have a big responsibility to integrate sustainable
water-management solutions. And there appears to be plenty of commitment to the
cause: According to UNFCCC, water has been named as the top
climate-adaptation priority in 79
of the Nationally Determined Contributions that countries have submitted in
response to the Paris Agreement.
But, as ever, nations will need big water-using companies to play their
in finding innovative solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle water wherever
possible. Industrial companies have been reducing their water use ratio for
decades, and water-related disclosure is increasing. CDP
that 3,370 companies reported on their water impacts in 2021, up from just 176
But as companies reduce their water use, the concentration of wastewater — the
water that has already been used, having gone through a factory facility, a
home, a sanitation system, or rain falling on a roof, for example — increases.
So, smarter management and processing of
presents a significant opportunity. Globally, an estimated 80
all wastewater is discharged into the local environment with minimal or no
treatment — water that could be recycled and reused.
California-based startup Aquacycl believes it
has come up with a solution to protect water resources while helping industrial
firms reduce their costs.
“Some companies we have talked to are spending more than $2 million a year per
site on wastewater surcharges,” Orianna Bretschger tells Sustainable
Brands™. She is the company’s CEO and one of three co-founders —
alongside CTO Sofia Babanova and Ryoji Naito, SVP of Manufacturing and
The firm’s Bio-electrochemical Treatment Technology — known simply as
BETT — uses natural bacteria to clean wastewater, reduce sludge and produce
direct electricity. The bacteria, which the company sources on or near a
customer’s site, breaks down organic matter in the wastewater. This releases
electrons during the natural process of respiration; these are captured as a
direct current in the BETT system and can be used to offset the power
consumption of the system. By using higher electrical currents, the treatment
can be sped up due to the enhanced microbial respiration. This means wastewater
treatment can be done in hours, instead of the days or weeks required by most
“Microbial fuel cells have long been explored as a waste-to-energy approach that
provide energy-neutral wastewater treatment, but technical challenges have
limited the commercialization of the technology until now,” Bretschger says.
The technology — borne out of Bretschger and Babanova’s joint research at a
leading genomics institute back in 2015 — not only improves the quality of the
water that can be reused, it is also helping companies address their Scopes 1, 2
and 3 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is especially important given the
water sector contributes roughly 4-5 percent of global GHG emissions.
According to Bretschger, centralized wastewater treatment relies heavily on
aerobic systems — meaning that air is blown into the wastewater, which requires
large amounts of energy and generates high volumes of sludge. The sludge is
commonly landfilled, which breaks down into methane — the GHG 84 times more
potent than CO2.
“When we remove the bulk of the organics at the industrial customers’ site, it
means that the city doesn’t need to use as much energy for treatment and minimal
sludge is produced from the streams associated with the discharge.”
The Aquacycl team have crunched the numbers: By treating high-strength
wastewater onsite, BETT systems can mitigate 90 percent of GHG emissions that
would otherwise be generated during aerobic treatment. For one of its customers,
this has meant mitigating more than 100 tons of GHG emissions every month,
To reduce overall demand for freshwater, the BETT system removes the bulk of
organic material from the process wastewater, enabling water recycling with
complementary technologies. For example, in Colorado, the team has installed
a system at a distillery where the treated wastewater will be reused on an
adjacent farm as high-nutrient agricultural water.
“We’re also reducing water demand by eliminating dilution of these
ultra-concentrated flows,” Bretschger adds. “The typical water adage is, ‘the
solution to pollution is dilution.’ But we’re changing this to only treating
what needs to be treated.”
For companies to shift their operational models, the associated cost savings
must be worthwhile. Here, by separating and treating small volumes of highly
concentrated wastewater, the lower-concentrate streams can be reused or
discharged to sewers without surcharges. By only treating a small volume,
treatment costs can be kept to a minimum — with smaller equipment, fewer
chemicals and less energy being used to operate.
Bretschger admits that proving a new technology in the water sector can be “an
exercise in patience and perseverance.” Aquacycl has gone from a laboratory
experiment in 2016 to securing its first commercial, multi-year
pay-for-performance contract five years later. In that time, it has continued to
validate the technology — working with the US Navy, breweries, confectioners
and beverage manufacturers. And the startup has lent on a range of accelerator
programs for support, not least Google for Startups — which provided the
Aquacycl team with expert mentors to help navigate everything from machine
learning to marketing and sales.
So, what’s next for the ambitious entrepreneurs? The next 12 months will see the
firm expand from the US to Europe as part of Bretschger’s aim for “world
“We have droughts across Europe that we haven’t seen in 500 years. Heat waves in
China are shutting down power plants. There are unprecedented floods in
Pakistan covering a third of the country. We aren’t prepared for these
massive changes that are happening,” she laments. “Right now, companies largely
see wastewater as a problem; they want to stay in compliance at the lowest cost.
We see it as an opportunity — because there is value in wastewater.
Decentralized wastewater treatment is one element that can help us as we are
forced to adapt to this new reality.”
Published Sep 19, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Tom is founder of storytelling strategy firm Narrative Matters — which helps organizations develop content that truly engages audiences around issues of global social, environmental and economic importance. He also provides strategic editorial insight and support to help organisations – from large corporates, to NGOs – build content strategies that focus on editorial that is accessible, shareable, intelligent and conversation-driving.