News / Science & Technology

Wastewater Plants Extract Nutrients from Sewage

Wastewater Plants Extract Nutrients from Sewage i
X
October 24, 2012 6:37 PM
Sewage treatment plants around the world are beginning to put value on waste, turning it into a marketable resource. Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington is the largest facility of its kind in the world and is among the leaders in the effort. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Wastewater Plants Extract Nutrients from Sewage
Rosanne Skirble
Sewage treatment plants around the world are beginning to put value on waste, turning it into a marketable resource.  

Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington is the largest facility of its kind in the world and is among the leaders in the effort.

On an average day, 1.4 billion liters of raw sewage flow into the plant, delivered from around the city through 2,000 kilometers of underground sewer pipes and pumping stations, an amount that could fill the nearby sports stadium.  

The waste is loaded with nitrogen and other nutrients.

Wastewater - A Green Industry
Wastewater US Policy, pt. 2i
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X


General Manager George Hawkins makes sure the discharge doesn’t pollute the river on which two million people in the region depend for their drinking water.

Limited discharge

By law, Blue Plains can dump only a small percentage of those nutrients into the Potomac River.

“We know that people buy nutrients all the time," Hawkins says. "So the question is how can we take things out of the water that we’re treating here and re-use it for the resource that it is?”

  • When raw sewage comes into Blue Plains debris and grit are removed and trucked to a landfill. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Sewage flows into primary sedimentation tanks that separate more than half of the suspended solids from the liquid. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • After primary sedimentation, the fluid flows into secondary tanks where oxygen is pumped into it so microbes can break down the organic matter. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • In a laboratory at Blue Plains, researchers are working on a cost-saving measure that would deploy a newly discovered microbe that can break down organic matter without oxygen. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Blue Plains plans to cut its nitrogen discharges into the Potomac River by half when this expansion project is completed in 2014. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Microbes convert ammonia into harmless nitrogen gas. (Credit: DC Water)
  • Water, percolated through sand filters, removes remaining suspended solids and then is disinfected and de-chlorinated and discharged into the Potomac River. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Construction is underway to build giant digesters that will bake the solid waste recovered during treatment and turn it into methane gas that will in part power the plant. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Wastewater cleansed at Blue Plains is cleaner than the Potomac River when it is discharged in the waterway. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • By 2025 a new underground tunnel system will reduce to almost zero sewage overflow into Washington, DC waterways.  (Credit: Ted Coyle, DC Water)
  • The system of pipes, valves and pumping stations that distributes water to more than two million people in Washington, DC and suburban communities is aging like this one installed in 1910. (Credit: DC Water)



A massive $4 billion environmental program is under way at Blue Plains.

Among the three projects, two are mandated by the government, including one that will cut in half the amount of nitrogen and other waste nutrients discharged into the Potomac River.

The other is an underground tunnel to prevent accidental sewage overflow from its network of ageing pipes.

Sludge power

Engineer Chris Peot heads the solid waste program at Blue Plains, which is working on making better use of the mud-like sludge components of the wastewater stream.  

He says by 2012 the four huge digesters now under construction will cook the sludge.

“The microbes in the digesters are methanogens and they help break down the organic matter and convert it into methane which can be collected and burned in a turbine which turns and creates electricity.”

The process will make enough methane gas to supply about one-third of the treatment plant’s electric power needs, a great savings given that Blue Plains is the city’s biggest electricity user.

The other half of the digested wastewater bio-solids will be sold as a nutrient-rich soil additive.

“If we blend it and make it look like a top soil we can market it to the public," Peot says. "It can certainly be a source of revenue, a source of good clean soils for restoration projects, for reducing run-off for tree planting.”

Ghana's green factory

Other sewage treatment plants in the United States and other developed countries have adopted this by-product technology, or are considering doing so. The idea is also generating interest in developing countries.  

Amit Pramanik is an environmental engineer with the Water Environment Research Foundation. In a recent trip to Ghana, West Africa, he visited Kumasi, the nation’s second largest city, where only 10 percent of the residents are connected to a central sewer system.



Pramanik says the digester project under construction will help reduce waste that now flows largely into open pits or landfills. He says project managers hope it will also generate useful and commercially valuable by-products such as nutrient-rich soil additives, bio-diesel fuel and methane gas.

“Can you recover that gas and can you use that either for heating or cooking and so on?" he says. "Can you grow food crops with this? Can you recover the nitrogen and phosphorus and increase agricultural yields?”

Economically and environmentally sound

What’s attractive to the local community, Pramanik says, is the payback.  

He says the model could be adopted anywhere that waste can be marketed as a profitable community resource. “So if you can get the community involved from the beginning and see that the community is benefiting from it, and the community sees that, they will take ownership.”

Pramanik says these new green factories make good sense for the local economy, for public health and for the environment.  

Costly old infrastructure

George Hawkins at the Washington Water and Sewer Authority agrees, however he and other waste water managers in the United are faced with many challenges to put such new green factories in place.  First, he says, their current system of pipes and pumping stations is old and requires on-going maintenance.  “In most cities the system was put in at the turn of the century of the last century when cities were being formed. And, he adds, the fact is that we need a lot of revenue from our rate-payers to bring it back up to date.”

Hawkins predicts those rates will increase by double-digits annually for years to come.

Not only is this costly, but secondly operators must also comply with strict environmental rules.  Under the Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago and widely credited with protecting public health and the environment, industries are required to limit the waste that can go into the waterways.

Financial challenge

Many cash-strapped communities are finding it difficult to meet the law’s tough new standards, for what some, as George Hawkins told lawmakers at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, believe are marginal environmental benefits to the waterway.

“We spend one billion dollars to get one tenth the protection of what we had spent 100 million dollars for in the past," he said. "And, it’s only going to get more expensive.

Joining Hawkins at the hearing was Lima, Ohio Mayor David Berger, who said his city doesn’t have all the funds it needs to comply with the new rules.

“These are unfunded mandates," Hawkins said. "So, if the Congress has passed these as mandates and orders for us to execute, then you must join us to pay for it. If the cash isn’t there or the political will isn’t there, then regulatory relief must come, and it has to come soon.”

While Republican Congressman Bob Gibbs told Berger that he agreed, that communities with ageing water and sewer systems need to be given some flexibility in complying with the law, Congress has actually moved to reduce funds for water projects from projects from $4.7 billion in 2009 to just $690 million in 2012.

Stalled Funding

Last year Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop introduced a bi-partisan bill to expand a fund that states could use to finance water projects.  

In his remarks at the hearing, Bishop was clearly frustrated that the bill is stalled in Congress. “We’re going in the wrong direction here. And we are exacerbating a problem that all of you on the ground are trying to resolve.”

George Hawkins says he and other public utility mangers will continue to press the U.S. Congress to provide the funds they need to comply with new clean water laws and maintain aging infrastructure. In the meantime, he urges the nation’s water treatment managers to pursue creative ways to turn wastewater into an income stream.

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fairi
X
Brian Padden
May 29, 2015 1:27 PM
With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs