From the Top: Q&A with Phillip Abrary
- By Phillip Abrary
- Nov 09, 2010
Phillip Abrary, president and chief executive officer of Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., shares how his five-year-old company has found success using a struvite recovery process.
How does your background help you in operating a company that appears to be in the wastewater treatment/nutrient recovery field?
I studied biology at the University of British Columbia and achieved a bachelor of science degree before pursuing my Chartered Accountant designation.
I was the founder and acting president of RTM Norden Inc., an international business and technology consulting firm, focused on the manufacturing sector throughout North America and Europe. I counseled companies in the pulp and paper (PNP) industry, which provided a deep understanding of the financial, operational and technological realities of this capital intensive and highly regulated industry. For example, PNP companies must treat their wastewater and meet strict discharge limits.
When vetting the Ostara technology, I called on my experience with PNP enterprises to understand the challenges and opportunities of commercializing what would prove once again to be a capital intensive, highly regulated industry responsible for treating wastewater.
Do you have a passion for the environment or environmental issues?
In searching for a company to buy or a technology to commercialize, I considered many different options, some of which were more lucrative but less ethical. I do believe in triple-bottom-line accounting, and this technology and its product, Crystal Green, have demonstrated and quantified economic, environmental, and social benefits. To me, this is the essence of a modern environmentalism — commercial success that creates momentum across industrial sectors and an ascending benchmark for true sustainability.
How did you, Jones, McHugh, and Britton came together to start Ostara?
As the founder and acting president of RTM Norden, I worked with Ted Jones who was our director of technology. We were introduced to Joe McHugh through a business associate. As a former attorney licensed in the State of Illinois, Joe was interested in the initial exploration of new business opportunities and offered his corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions experience. We had a common goal; we were seeking an opportunity that required some nurturing and development, and one that had a viable market.
After considerable evaluation of a number of opportunities, we optioned the University of British Columbia's (UBC) nutrient recovery technology for six months, which allowed us to conduct a market study. We contracted a market study consultant, who in turn hired Ahren Britton to provide technical counsel on the study. Ahren was working with the City of Vancouver and already was a professional engineer with a master's degree in applied science from UBC. Ahren had achieved his master's by conducting the first pilot for UBC’s nutrient recovery technology in Penticton, British Columbia, and is credited as the co-inventor of the technology, along with Don Mavinic, Ph.D.
Eventually, Ahren left Vancouver to dedicate his time to the market study project. He then joined Ted and me at the point where we were working with the University-Industry Liaison Office to commercialize UBC’s nutrient recovery technology, and form Ostara in 2005
Where does the company name come from?
As always, picking a company name is a challenging process. Many names were proposed for the company, including the typical list of acronym-inspired and jargony tech names. However, “Ostara” — the Germanic goddess fertility — stood out for its reference to fertility, rebirth, and cycle of life.
Was struvite scale or nutrient recovery the driving factor for technology development?
The issue of struvite scale for wastewater treatment plants and nutrient recovery – which is becoming increasingly important for wastewater treatment plants – drove Ostara’s technology development.
However, until recently, most industrial, commercial, and academic nutrient applications focused on nutrient removal rather than recovery. For example, the UBC Civil Engineering Department has been a leading institution in the field of biological nutrient removal for wastewater treatment plants for decades. A series of independent events changed this when researchers at UBC’s Environmental Studies Department were asked by BC Hydro to develop a fertilizer to rehabilitate areas around hydroelectric dams. Around the same time, officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were buying fertilizer abroad to add to rivers to repair salmon habitats. The nutrients in the fertilizer released slowly in the water and mimicked the nutrients available to salmon fry from the decomposing mature salmon, which die naturally after returning to spawn.
Struvite precipitation already existed in Japan, but the product realized from the process was very low quality and not practical as a commercial product. Researchers in UBC’s Civil Engineering Department bested this practice by developing a proprietary fluidized bed reactor pilot that recovered struvite and formed crystalline pellets or “prills” through a controlled chemical process. The ability to form very hard, perfectly formed prills of different sizes as part of the process was key to recovering nutrients in a meaningful way.
This research pilot demonstrated that the struvite scale challenge faced by wastewater treatment plants could be solved with the added benefit of creating a slowly dissolving commercial-ready fertilizer. Armed with the knowledge of the BC Hydro fertilizer and Fisheries initiatives, researchers tested the new fertilizer product in salmon fry habitat rehabilitation, which yielded positive results.
Ostara licensed the technology in 2005 and conducted the initial full-scale pilot (scaled up from the laboratory by a factor of 100) for the City of Edmonton, which demonstrated the struvite removal and the resulting nutrient recovery. The technology invented at UBC and commercialized by Ostara, is now called Pearl®, and the fertilizer byproduct of the system is now called Crystal Green®. And using Crystal Green to rehabilitate the salmon population in BC streams continues to be an application ensuring the highest beneficial reuse of nutrients.
What is your company's strength?
A recent newspaper article stated that all clean techs are two companies in one. I don’t know if that is true for all, but it is certainly true for us and I believe this is our strength. In the early stage of our development, many local funders stated that we would not be successful based on our “two-company” status. In spite of, or perhaps as a result of, these early cautionary messages, we structured the company in a way that would allow both companies to thrive independently, while creating synergies between the two business units.
We recruited top performers in water technologies, fertilizer, and related fields, attracted top-tier board members including environmental advocate and attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and created alliances with key members of the greater eco-community including Audubon International and William McDonough, co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle® eco-effective design paradigm.
What is the scope of your operations?
Ostara has one full-scale demonstration facility in Edmonton, Alberta, and three commercial-scale facilities in Oregon, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Ostara also has facilities currently in the design phase for the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District in Wisconsin and at the Thames Water’s Slough Sewage Works in London, UK.
We have conducted 22 pilots to successfully demonstrate the technology, prove treatment performance, and create product from the piloting facility’s own centrate. We have conducted pilots in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and China.
Do you manage the company in a sustainable way? If so, please explain. What environmental regulations does your company have to comply with?
We do not have environmental regulations per se; however, every member of our company strives to “walk the talk.” Some are avid cyclists and ride into work everyday. We work with local suppliers at our launches, eschew packaging where possible, and use 100 percent post-consumer paper for many applications.
What is your company's greatest challenge?
Because municipal procurement processes and cycles are long and they involve economic, community, technical and regulatory decision makers, the contracting process can be as long as 18 months.
That said, we launched two facilities in 2010, have two major projects in the design phase, and a partnership agreement in place in the Netherlands. Longer timelines have allowed us to fully develop our fertilizer distribution network and create synergies between our business units around the implementation of each new facility. For example, our York facility in Pennsylvania produces Crystal Green for a York fertilizer company, which then uses the nutrients on turf and athletic fields in the York area.
How green is the Pearl Nutrient Recovery Process?
The Pearl process uses very low amounts of energy to dry the fertilizer and requires little other energy to operate. It eliminates the chemicals used to maintain pipes and valves that would otherwise clog with struvite. Each wastewater facility with a Pearl solution trucks and disposes of fewer biosolids. Finally, the Pearl process makes the wastewater treatment plant run more efficiently overall, ensuring the entire facility is more energy efficient.
The byproduct of the process ─ Crystal Green ─ is green from three perspectives:
- In university, field, and commercial trials, it is proven to release nutrients slowly, which allows the plants to fully absorb nutrients over a growing season of six to nine months, minimizing runoff into local waterways. By contrast, mined or commodity-grade phosphorus sources are highly soluble and not available to the plant in as little as six weeks of application, and as much as 80 percent of the nutrients leach or run off into waterways causing pollution.
- It is created from waste, the only renewable source of phosphorus, and offsets environmentally damaging mined phosphorus use.
- It provides a local source of phosphorus for local fertilizer blenders — this has been demonstrated at our Oregon and our Pennsylvania facilities where local fertilizer blenders are choosing Crystal Green over other phosphorus sources.
What is the output of a Pearl Nutrient Recovery Process plant?
The minimum size of plant for our process is a population equivalent of 100,000. For example, the town could be 100,000 or it could be 90,000 with a factory that has a population equivalent of 10,000. The plant begins recovering nutrients as soon as the Pearl process is operational, and the system can produce and harvest Crystal Green within a few days. A good benchmark is approximately 1,000 tons [of Crystal Green] for every 1,000,000 population equivalent.
Of the two business models you offer, which is more popular?
Currently, the capital purchase model is the more popular. The Oregon and Virginia plants used a traditional capital sale model, with Ostara delivering an equipment-based scope and process guarantee.
The Pennsylvania facility employs an innovative service-based model, in which Ostara designed, built, financed, and owns the asset, then charges monthly “treatment fees” providing agreed process performance standards are delivered. The monthly fee is less than the costs the City of York had been incurring in dealing with the nutrient issues that Pearl solves, providing immediate operational savings with minimal contractual risk.
How does the program work if a municipality doesn't have the resources to sell and market Crystal Green?
Ostara always assumes responsibility for marketing and selling [the product] regardless of the nature of the project contract.
Who is buying Crystal Green?
Ostara currently has blender/distributor relationships in the turf, nursery, and specialty agriculture industries, and sells to companies in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
Some regulatory agencies are concerned about nutrients from fertilizer products reaching waterways via stormwater runoff. Have you done any testing on this with your product?
Yes, following is a summary of research related to Crystal Green solubility:
- Crystal Green has a unique release mechanism that is proven to be quite insoluble in water. Testing by Virginia Tech and the University of Arkansas over a three-year period demonstrates that [the product] remains available to the plant for up to nine months, even with heavy irrigation and in very porous soil.
- Predictable, consistent, slow-release properties demonstrated in aquatic life restoration. UBC conducted a five-year salmon restoration project using Crystal Green. Currently, we sell product to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for the purposes of salmon habitat rehabilitation. This is one of our best, ongoing pieces of “research.”
- Use less Crystal Green than traditional phosphorus sources. Tests performed at Oregon State University, North Carolina State University, Virginia Tech and in the UK have shown that Crystal Green delivers phosphorous in a very efficient manner compared to diammonium phosphate. Therefore, much less phosphorus (in the form of Crystal Green) needs to be applied to achieve the same results as traditional phosphorus sources.
In additional research, the independent laboratory analysis found that Crystal Green has far fewer contaminants than agricultural phosphorus fertilizers. For example, no cadmium or arsenic (two heavy metals that are commonly found in traditional agricultural phosphorous fertilizers) was detected. More research is ongoing over the 2010-2011 growing season at Cornell University, University of Florida, and University of Wisconsin.
Why is this process something Environmental Protection/Water & Wastewater News readers should spend money on?
Using Ostara's technology, wastewater systems recover phosphorus from sewage sludge that would otherwise be wasted — either incinerated or dumped on landfills, both with negative environmental consequences. The fertilizer produced from Ostara's technology, Crystal Green®, is in slow release form, which virtually eliminates runoff and ensures that all nutrients remain in the soil where they are applied, and do not end up in adjacent waterways, polluting the environment. Crystal Green is the only slow release fertilizer made from a renewable source of phosphorus – wastewater.
Who are your competitors?
There are other companies that have pilot-scale or one-off installations of struvite precipitation technology, but there are no companies actively engaged in, and capable of, producing a high-grade fertilizer product such as Crystal Green. The Ostara process is unique in the recovery of nutrients from waste in a way that reduces operating costs, increases plant capacity, complies with environmental regulations, and produces high-quality environmentally friendly fertilizer that generates revenue for the customer —multiple benefits stemming from a single technology.
How far has Ostara come from 2005 when you helped to start the company?
The company began with a small pilot, three inches in the narrowest part of the reactor, and now we have four full-scale facilities, with two more in the design phase. We sell our fertilizer product in Canada, the United States and Europe. We have two distinct business units and they are both commercially successful in just five years.
Where do you see your company in the next five years?
Ideally, we would like to see the Pearl technology as the de-facto standard in wastewater treatment plants in North America, Europe, and Asia. Our goal is that Crystal Green is the standard nutrient choice whenever the environment is at stake. Finally, we would like to ensure that knowledge of our nutrient recovery technology and renewal fertilizer empowers water and fertilizer professionals, community leaders, and environmental advocates to further support Ostara as a global cleantech leader.
Phillip Abrary is president, chief executive officer, and director of Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., which is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia.