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OxyMem, Boldly Going Where No Sewage Treatment Has Gone Before!

OxyMem, Boldly Going Where No Sewage Treatment Has Gone Before!

NASA is hard at work tackling the challenges of space travel and dreaming up technologies to meet those challenges.

Researchers are examining wastewater recovery systems robust enough for use on long term space missions. Biological treatment has been the primary focus, with specific thrusts in developing a biological treatment system that may be operated with minimal crew maintenance and low energy and mass requirements.

In space travel, water is crucial. As space agencies around the world are contemplating human missions to Mars and even further afield, water must be recovered aboard the spaceship.

MABR-In-Space-NASA-OxyMem

Currently, water in space-stations is produced by the condensation of humidity and by the treatment of urine excreted by astronauts. This waste is recycled using a combination of membrane filtration and distillation processes however on long voyages, such as those to Mars, there will be no ability to supply replacement filters from earth or to dispose of concentrated waste streams.

Biological wastewater treatment degrades pollutants, produces less waste and at the same time uses less energy and no chemicals. This makes it a serious contender for a role in the recovery of water aboard long duration space missions.

Microgravity conditions in space mean that bubbles don’t work, so an alternative method of supplying oxygen for the biological treatment is required. The Membrane Aerated Biofilm Reactor supplies Oxygen through concentration gradient across the gas permeable membrane without the requirement for gravity, therefore allowing for the aerobic biological degradation of the waste.

Additionally because the process is biofilm based it is more stable and resilient than suspended biological treatment processes, which is crucial when the nearest help is 200,000,000 km away. 

In a recent study by researchers at Texas Tech University it was concluded that the ability of an MABR using microporous membranes to perform as a treatment system was a “promising technology for use in space applications”.

With that in mind, could OxyMem - the first commercially available MABR on earth, one day make it into space? Only time will tell.

Eoin Syron
Eoin Syron
Dr. Eoin Syron is OxyMem's technical leader and innovator. Eoin has been involved in the development of OxyMem since its earliest days, focusing on scale up issues and investigating full-scale deployment of the technology.

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Nitrous Oxide, Not So Funny After All   Nitrous oxide emissions from wastewater treatment plants are 265 times more harmful to our environment than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas which is emitted as an undesired bioproduct during the biological treatment of wastewater,  it is estimated to be responsible for six per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it has a warming potential 265 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2). It is also one of the main contributors to depleting the ozone layer. The gas is created during the nitrification and denitrification phase due to nitrogen present in urea, ammonia, and proteins found in municipal wastewater. Despite these concerns, there is some reason for optimism because nitrous oxide has a much shorter lifespan of only 114 years compared to carbon dioxide, which can survive hundreds of years in the atmosphere. Therefore, making changes to reduce N2O emission can have a profound effect on the environment in a much shorter time frame. A report from 2019 showed that 6% of nitrous oxide emissions in the United States come from wastewater treatment. Given this prevalence, reducing, and mitigating process emissions from N2O will be paramount for the water industry over the coming decade. Currently the water industry is working towards monitoring nitrous oxide on treatment plants and considering how best to reduce emissions through optimization or upgrading of treatment processes. Could OxyMem be the answer? Investing in technologies which can limit emission and make plant activities more sustainable will be key. To date there has been significant interest in carbon emissions within the sector, but momentum is growing as interest shifts towards targeting harmful nitrous oxide and lesser-known greenhouse gases.  Denmark  In 2018 the Danish EPA launched a funding scheme for Danish utility companies dedicated to measurements of and mitigation actions towards nitrous oxide emissions. In the period from 2018 to 2020, nine Danish utilities have measured and registered nitrous oxide emissions from nine different wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) under the EPA funding scheme OxyMem have supported Vandcenter Syd (VCS) Denmark, who partnered with Aarhus Vand Denmark, to demonstrate the benefits of MABR technology at the Ejby Mølle WWRF. Work started in the summer of 2018. The full-scale demonstration of MABR at Ejby Mølle provided some great insights into the technology, but one key aspect recorded was the significant difference in N2O emissions from MABR when compared against conventional activated sludge treatment. In this project VCS measured nitrous oxide emissions from the conventional activated sludge surface-aerated reactors and the MABR demonstration reactors. Liquid phase sensors were positioned in both the existing activated sludge tanks and the demonstration MABR tanks, and a gas analyser was used to measure nitrous oxide concentrations in the exhaust gas of the MABR units. Results showed that nitrous oxide emissions were on average one order of magnitude lower than those from the conventional activated sludge plant, even under much higher loading conditions. The initial results from the project are very promising and reflect the immense potential for MABR to achieve very intensive total nitrogen removal with low nitrous oxide emissions. United Kingdom -2030 Net Zero Goals Given the potential for the sector, further studies on N2O and the added benefits of MABR are to be formally carried out under a recent initiative by Anglian Water. OxyMem technology was chosen to demonstrate how MABR might help the UK achieve 2030 emissions goals. Plant design is already underway. The project will be funded through an Innovation Fund made available by Ofwat Anglian Water’s Triple Carbon Reduction solution, delivered in partnership with OxyMem, Element Energy Ltd, Jacobs, Cranfield University, University of East Anglia, Brunel University, Severn Trent Water, Scottish Water, Northern Ireland Water and United Utilities, has been awarded more than £3.5 million. 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By collaborating with academia, businesses and other water companies, our project creates an elegant solution to eliminate part of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with wastewater treatment and position the sector within the developing hydrogen landscape, in line with the newly launched UK Government Hydrogen strategy.” Amanda Lake, Water Process Lead, Jacobs Europe, said: “We’re excited to couple an innovative pure MABR treatment solution with green hydrogen production. We know the outcomes could be significant for the water sector - lower nitrous oxide process emissions, a role in the green hydrogen economy, valuable resource recovery and application of best practice life cycle assessment methods. What a valuable chance to work together to open the door to the lower carbon, circular economy water sector we urgently require. OxyMem MABR technology could assist the sector in achieving their global environmental goals over the coming years, by enhancing current Wastewater Treatment Plants capacity and at same time help clients move towards achieving their future net zero carbon emissions.  OxyMem MABR enables clients to add or improve ammonia reduction on existing large works using only a few kW's, and the technology can be simply dropped into existing treatment plants without the need to build additional structures or stopping live processes which are key benefits to enable the sector to achieve global environmental goals over the coming years.