leafy footprint

Better Tech, Not Best

"Better, faster, smaller, cheaper." After spending the past week on a whirlwind tour of water technology in Ontario, Canada, I’m coming to realize that this may just be the new catchphrase in the sector. Companies and municipalities took pains to point out that their technologies reduced not only facilities’ physical footprints but their environmental ones as well. And of course, all of this was occurring at a lower cost than previous technology.

Several utilities heralded pressurized membrane systems as the new standard in physical filtration. The low-energy systems apply suction to straw-like polymer tubes with millions of microscopic holes too small for protozoa such as cryptosporidium and giardia to get through. So they’re better, but also smaller: Depending on the model used, membrane systems can use up to 75 percent less space than traditional sand filtration systems do.

UV disinfection systems fall squarely in the “better” category: By crippling water contaminants’ DNA structure, these UV can disinfect water without the hazards of the industry-standard – and often government-required – chlorine gas.

On the dirtier side, one company is looking at using electrolysis to treat sludge in wastewater. Though the technology only just began its pilot program in February, it’s promising to separate sludge from wastewater effluent in less than 30 minutes, in a smaller facility, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And depending on the situation, the technology may even be able to help facilities sell more valuable greenhouse gases, such as methane, creating additional revenue.

But for this bright, footprint-shrinking future ahead, problems still remain. Numerous times I heard the lament that, despite these exciting new technologies, the solution to every problem always causes another problem. Even though you get a more effective filter, what do you do with the waste you’ve collected? What do you do with the inorganic matter you’ve extracted from wastewater via electrolysis?

While it’s great news that UV light can kill contaminants and membrane filters can weed them out, most North American governments still require facilities to add chlorine to the water – even if it has been disinfected another way.

And then there’s the matter of getting these technologies into plants. Multiple companies described the difficulties of demonstrating that their better/cheaper/faster systems actually worked. Before utilities invest in a new system, they want to see its effectiveness in a real-life application – and few are willing to let their town’s residents become test subjects.

Even once technologies been tested and certified, we remain human and prone to errors: It appears that, on the day I visited the Pickering nuclear power generating plant’s water facility, it inadvertently released contaminated water into Lake Ontario.

This technology is exciting; I certainly can’t disagree with that. But what’s clear is that, while the future may be better, faster, smaller, and cheaper, it’s not going to be perfect.

Laura Williams is a content developer for Environmental Protection.

Posted by Laura Williams on Mar 21, 2011

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