Archive, Infrastructure, Innovation

Innovation at DC Water

Take a look at the short video below. I am speaking about the extraordinary team that we have assembled to plan, research, assess and then design the world’s largest, and North America’s first, thermo-hydrolysis system to turn the solid material we remove from the wastewater at Blue Plains into heat, power, and a clean fertilizer. Thermo-hydrolysis refers to the proprietary CAMBI system to heat the solids under high pressure, which in layman’s terms, breaks down the cell walls and molecular bonds holding the solid material together — making the digestion of the material with microbes to produce methane far more efficient. That allows the digesters themselves – large vessels in which the biological reaction to produce methane is undertaken – to be smaller than conventional digestion systems.

This size is vital to Blue Plains, where we have run out of space, and where we generate enormous quantities of solids. (About 60 huge tanker trucks full, EVERY DAY!). This technology, once we prove it works at the mammoth scale, will make the transformation of water reclamation facilities around the country and world more likely. Clean burning and infinitely renewable methane from plants like Blue Plains can become an important part of our energy future.

Despite this remarkable achievement, and the $470 million dollar investment that is paying for it, there is an even more important message here. Every public enterprise has a hard time investing ratepayer or taxpayer money on research and development. DC Water has spearheaded developing a cost-effective and hugely productive model to drive innovation, which is innovative in its own right. Under the direction of Assistant General Manager Walt Bailey, and his deputies Sudhir Murthy and Chris Peot, DC Water partners with private firms and universities to share the costs and risks associated with original research to drive innovation. Respected Professors link students seeking masters and Ph.D level research experience with private firms seeking to investigate potential new technology and markets with our own experts – with Blue Plains providing the ultimate hands-on proving ground. At relatively modest expense, DC Water has developed bench models of the treatment system, and then employees graduate students to help conduct ground-breaking experiments on new technology. Nearly 100 published papers have resulted in these collaborations, enabling students to gain the experience and credentials they need, companies gain insight on new products and services, and DC Water achieve optimal performance at a reasonable price.

This effort also allows a relatively small research office, at relatively low cost, to drive innovation that equals much larger programs.

I offer here my congratulations to the great team from Bucknell University, Brown & Caldwell, and of course DC Water — for creating this team and making the decision on our biosolids program mostly a financial one, because the scientific and technical issues had been so thoroughly investigated and answered.

And yes, I badly need a haircut, or at least a good hair brush, in this snippet!

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