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Vancouver firm harvests wastewater systems for profit

Ian Harvey
Vancouver firm harvests wastewater systems for profit

It wasn’t so long ago wastewater treatment facilities were just plain old sewage treatment plants. Today, the nomenclature is shifting again as municipalities latch on to innovative technologies to coax a revenue stream out of what has traditionally been a cost centre.

Ostara, a Vancouver-based maker of technology to extract phosphorous and nitrogen from the wastewater stream and to create fertilizer pellets, is at the forefront of that wave.

"There’s a very wide industry trend, whereas people viewed wastewater plants as there to control pollutions, which of course is important, now we see them acting as a resource recovery centre," says Matt Kuzma, vice-president of nutrient recovery solutions for Ostara. "It was sewage, then wastewater, now they are water resource reclamation centres and extracting viable economic resources. It’s bigger now. It’s about water, energy and resources."

Since the dawn of civilization, dealing with effluent has always been a collective challenge. Between them, people and agricultural animals produce waste that often runs off into waterways where the embedded components cause problems if left unchecked.

Nutrient pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges.

While they are necessary to aquatic ecosystems, once levels start to grow past normal, problems result.

Algae blooms uncontrollably, Ostara explains, decreasing oxygen levels for the other organisms and threatening their survival. Nitrogen turns to ammonia and if it pollutes drinking water causes health problems in humans.

Ostara says there are more than "400 dead zones around the world, with one of the largest in the Gulf of Mexico fed by runoff from the Mississippi River, which in turn is fed by runoff from the massive river basin network that feeds into it and stretches broadly across the U.S. heartland and all the way to the north."

However, phosphates and nitrogen are valuable commodities and instead of literally flushing them down the waterways, best practices call for their extraction, processing and sale.

The trick, of course, is to create a process at sufficient scale to be commercially viable and that’s where Ostara comes in with its Pearl system producing Crystal Green fertilizer.

The concept of extracting phosphates and nitrogen from water has been around for decades, but it wasn’t until about 2000 that a viable, scalable process was developed at the University of British Columbia.

Ostara was founded in 2005, licensed that process and set to work designing a commercial scale system. The first installation was a pilot at the Edmonton EPCOR waste treatment plant in 2008. In 2014 the company signed a deal to bring full-scale installation to the Clover Bar plant to help clean up the effluent pollution in the North Saskatchewan River.

Ostara has grown rapidly since that time and has a global profile with 14 plants in operation across Canada, the U.S and Europe.

Boosting growth has been a "perfect storm" says Kuzma.

"There is growing awareness about nutrient pollution and a desire to do something about it. At the same time in Canada, the last open pit phosphorous mine near Kapuskasing, Ont. closed about five years ago. It’s all coming from Morocco now."

With a local demand for fertilizer, Ostara’s finished products are a natural match.

"It really is a win-win," says Kuzma.

Ostara’s technology is based on its Pearl fluidized bed reactor which prompts the nutrients in the stream to crystalize and grow into pure fertilizer granules. At a specific size they are harvested, dried and packaged for distribution.

Ostara says the Pearl process removes up to 85 per cent of phosphorous and 15 per cent of nitrogen while also triggering a 25 per cent reduction in biosolids production, with a four per cent improvement in biosolids dewatering.

Payback on investment can be in as little as three to five years, says Kuzma, though it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

"In some areas there are tax incentives and other incentives which will offset the costs and increase the time for ROI," he says.

Despite a string of successes, Kuzma says the wastewater treatment sector tends to be conservative and resistant to early adoption of ideas.

However, he adds, the Prairie provinces have been forward thinking in moving towards nutrient capture and fertilizer creation partly perhaps because there’s a ready market for the product and partly because there’s a heightened awareness of nutrient pollution in the agriculture sector.

The cost isn’t out of line, he insists. Projects start in the $2- to $3-million range and go up. The world’s largest full treatment plant, the Stickney Water Reclamation Plant in Chicago, which has a wet weather capacity of 5.3-million cubic metres of flow a day, has a unit which costs $30 million.

While the fertilizer is a revenue stream, there’s a cost in manufacturing, harvesting and distributing it, Kuzma notes, but there’s a steady margin if it’s managed well.

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