Two Teams Named Grand-Prize Winners in Water Resource Recovery Prize

Nov. 9, 2021

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced two grand-prize winners of the Water Resource Recovery Prize, which is run by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The grand-prize winners each earned $250,000 for their novel, systemwide solutions, which could help smaller water treatment plants recover resource riches.

“The designs these teams came up with could revolutionize how wastewater treatment plants process sewage, agricultural runoff, and more,” said Matthew Ringer, laboratory program manager for the Advanced Manufacturing Program at NREL. “It could not only save money but also rescue valuable resources that are currently lost.”

Wastewater gets a bad name—literally. Water from sewage systems, septic tanks, runoff drains, and rivers and lakes is not just waste. It contains valuable, untapped energy and nutrients for fertilizers and biofuels, and it can be recycled and repurposed for agriculture, industrial and municipal needs, or even drinking water.

A more accurate name for wastewater might be enriched water. But recovering riches from the flow can be costly, especially for small or midsize wastewater treatment plants.

To help fast-track cutting-edge water treatment solutions, DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office launched the American-Made Challenges Water Resource Recovery Prize. The $1 million, two-phase competition challenged innovators to double resource recovery at municipal water treatment facilities, helping them extract enough water, energy, and nutrients from wastewater to reduce the overall cost of treatment.

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In July 2020, 10 teams and their proposed solutions earned $50,000 and a spot in the Phase 2 contest—the final phase of the Water Resource Recovery Prize. Six teams chose to move forward and had 1 year to design financial and construction plans and perform quantitative analysis and modeling for their concepts, which spanned a broad range of solutions. The following two teams earned the Phase 2 grand prize for their innovative systems:

  • Genifuel Not Waste: James Oyler, Aaron Fisher, and John L. Willis partnered with the City of Anacortes, Washington, Public Works Department, Wastewater Treatment Plant. Working with the wastewater treatment plant in Anacortes, Washington, the team proposed a concept that could recover more than 99% of the carbon in the plant’s wastewater and produce about three barrels of 100%-renewable biocrude per day. The biocrude could then be converted into renewable oil and natural gas and sold as fuel. Because waste disposal is expensive, this process could both offset disposal costs and earn the plant money.
  • SoMax BioEnergy: Dan Spracklin, Art Balzereit, Ross Lee, David Stoklosa, Ed Zalewski, and Jeremy Taylor partnered with the Borough of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Wastewater Treatment Plant. In Spring City, Pennsylvania, the team plans to help the wastewater treatment plant generate 100% of their energy needs on-site by using hydrothermal carbonization, a chemical process that mimics nature’s million-year-long method of creating brown coal and converts biomass (like local food waste) into renewable fuel in just a few hours. The plant, which will run entirely on this renewable power, may also share its excess energy with the city to offset other municipal energy needs.

The following four finalists earned an honorable mention for their promising designs, all of which could help accelerate the development of cost-effective solutions for water treatment facilities:

  • 374Water: Kobe Nagar, Mohammad Abu-Orf, Marc Deshusses, Doug Hatler, and Simon Lobdell partnered with the Orange Water and Sewer Authority. The team proposed using supercritical water oxidation to convert wastewater to heat, electricity, clean water, and minerals with more than 99% reduction in the volume of solids. Their new, energy-efficient process uses fewer chemicals, eliminates the need for off-site hauling and disposal of biosolids, and improves public health by eliminating pathogens and other contaminants from wastewater.
  • Carbonxt: Regina Rodriguez, Domenic Contrino, Jack Drwiega, Beau Kostedt, and Steve Suau partnered with Progressive Water Resources, Lakewood Ranch Stewardship. In collaboration with the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, the team is demonstrating its novel adsorption technology, called HydRestor. The technology absorbs water and phosphorous—a key fertilizer ingredient—from a water treatment plant’s wastewater. Because the adsorbent slowly releases these materials later, the agricultural industry could use them to replenish and hydrate soil.
  • Crystal Clearwater Resources: Marina Foster, Ambrose Lessard, Casey McKinne, Bob Ohlund, and Apoorva Sharma partnered with the San Vicente Wastewater Treatment Plant. The team is partnering with the wastewater treatment plant in San Vicente, California, to explore solutions that improve its water recovery efficiency and decrease its brine disposal volume. Because brine disposal increases the plant’s expenses and carbon emissions (with trucks transporting it away), the project’s system could save energy, lessen environmental impact, and recover useful minerals, like salt and phosphates.
  • Integrated Biodigester Resource Recovery: Michael Smith, Jan Allen, Andrew T. Corbin, Taylor Knoblock, Paco Joyce, and Tim Murphy of Impact Bioenergy partnered with the city of Tenino, Washington. The team aims to recover energy and nutrient resources from biosolids, reducing the plant’s energy and biosolid disposal costs, as well as preventing these materials from entering the city’s holding ponds. The plant may also help digest organic waste materials from a local brewery and distillery, a school food service company, and a new agricultural/industrial park being developed at a site adjacent to the plant.

All six teams were multidisciplinary and included competitors from water treatment plants, engineering and design firms, technology developers, and resource customers (like municipalities).

Learn more about DOE’s Water Resource Recovery Prize winning concepts and NREL’s state-of-the-art Advanced Manufacturing Program.