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Accelerating the ULTIMATE & NextGen Water Circular Economy solutions

What do Trappist monks, a whisky distillery and water utilities have in common? How can water utilities and industries seamlessly exchange resources to future-proof their businesses? The answer lies in the Circular Economy.  KWR is exploring how the water circular economy can be accelerated.

The need for a Water Circular Economy has become more evident and urgent in 2020. Traditional, linear supply chains involving production, consumption and disposal have become vulnerable. Climatic changes, commercial competition and environmental degradation are putting existing business models under strain.

While solving each of these challenges on their own is very difficult, what if we could help to solve all three problems at once?

Developing local, robust and transparent markets for water-embedded resources, including water, energy and materials, can help to climate-proof the whole of European society.

To unlock these resources and the benefits of water in the circular economy, there is a need for innovative technology, business and governance solutions. Furthermore, if stakeholders and citizens are engaged, it will accelerate not only the uptake but also the acceptance of circular solutions.

Rethinking and redesigning workflows

One expression being used to summarise the collaboration needed between different stakeholders and markets is “industrial symbiosis”. This describes utilities and industry, public and private sectors, seamlessly collaborating.

A water circular economy model promises lower costs, as well as new types of revenues, exploiting ‘waste’ management not only as a legal obligation but as a new business opportunity. Furthermore, a rejuvenation of local, national and regional economic activity could help towards economy growth with low environmental impact: a truly green recovery.

While industrial symbiosis and a circular approach can make industries future and climate proof, the transition to get there is far from easy. To date, innovations in the domain remain fragmented. Small scale experiments are encouraging but the wider uptake is still missing.

In light of the progress needed, there is a critical mass of projects being assembled to really push the circular economy forward in the next few years.

Two exciting European projects, being led by KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands, are exploring how we can accelerate water circular economy ambitions and navigate the potential hurdles in our path.

Project ULTIMATE: increasing economic value and sustainability

A total of 27 project partners have come together under the ULTIMATE project (indUstry water-utiLiTy symbIosis for a sMarter wATEr society).

Co-financed by the European Commission, the four-year Horizon2020 project is being carried out under the EU Water in the Context of the Circular Economy programme.

Kickstarting in the summer, the ambition is to create economic value and increase sustainability by valorising resources with the water cycle. The project will help to catalyse water’s role away from being collected, treated and disposed of, into instead being a vector for energy and materials.

Real-world, large scale demonstrations will be used to help build an evidence-base of industrial symbiosis applications. To help the transition to a circular economy, ULTIMATE will explore unlocking the following water-embedded resources:

  • (Waste)water: reuse at multiple scales, supported by advanced treatment technologies to produce fit-for-purpose water, compact/mobile/scalable systems, and where possible striving for near-Zero Liquid Discharge
  • Energy: improved biogas production, water-enabled heat transfer, storage and recovery for allied industries and commercial sectors, combined water-energy management, treatment plants as energy factories
  • Materials: nutrient mining and reuse, extraction of value-added compounds (e.g. antioxidants, precious metals), manufacturing new products from waste streams, and producing activated carbon from sludge to minimise costs of micro-pollutant removal.
Besides developing sound technological innovations supporting the Circular Economy we will also look into partnerships between industries and water utilities and (co-)ownership of water service providers.
Gerard van den Berg PhD
Gerard van den Berg PhD

Whisky to horticulture – nine project partners

In total, nine large-scale demonstrations across Europe have been selected from the agro-food, petrochemical and biotech sectors. From water utilities to whisky distilleries, the partners represent a variety of stakeholders who could participate and benefit from circular economy activities.

In Tuscany, Italy, the Aretusa Consortium treats residue waters from two communities and has an ambitious vision to increase its annual water process capacity by 30 per cent.

Meanwhile, the famous Glenmorangie whisky distillery in Scotland aims to extract ammonia for usage as fertiliser and to recover heat for use in the distillery processes.

Furthermore, the project aims to reuse the water and nutrients after treatment of the wastewater to remove pesticides and plant pathogens. The goal is to achieve zero wastewater discharge.

NextGen: increasing economic value and sustainability

Another project being coordinated by KWR under the EU Water in the Context of the Circular Economy programme is NextGen. The four-year H2020 project brings together a partnership of 30 organisations to demonstrate technological, business and governance solutions for water in the circular economy.

Similarly to ULTIMATE, NextGen is addressing how the circular economy will be driven through a wide range of water-embedded resources, including:

Water: reuse at multiple scales supported by nature-based storage, optimal management strategies, advanced treatment technologies, engineered ecosystems and compact/mobile/scalable systems

Energy: combined water-energy management, treatment plants as energy factories, water-enabled heat transfer, storage and recovery for allied industries and commercial sectors

Materials: nutrient mining and reuse, manufacturing new products from waste streams, regenerating and repurposing membranes to reduce water reuse costs, and producing activated carbon from sludge to minimise costs of micro-pollutant removal.

Developing local, robust and transparent markets for water-embedded resources can help to climate-proof the European society.
Christos Makropoulos Meng DIC MSc PhD FRGS FHEA
Christos Makropoulos Meng DIC MSc PhD FRGS FHEA

UK airfield to Dutch brewery – ten demo cases

Innovative circular water solutions are being demonstrated at ten large-scale sites across Europe. Emphasis will be on the conditions for successful application and upscaling.

Examples include in the UK, a former airfield north of Bristol is being developed into an attractive and sustainable area. As part of a masterplan, NextGen water and energy management will include a strategic Surface Water System, ensuring a reliable drainage and allow local use of captured rainwater and water reuse.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, developments at the La Trappe brewery are enabling the recovery of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus materials from wastewater. Furthermore, treated water is being reused primarily as irrigation water, and potentially as water used during the bottle-washing process.

In the Costa Brava region in Spain, high seasonal demand can lead to frequent episodes of water scarcity, as well as causing saltwater intrusion. In light of this, the area is championing water reuse in Europe, with reused water being used for agricultural irrigation, environmental and non-potable uses.

A key innovation through NextGen is the regeneration of end-of-life membranes. Different molecular cut-offs will be used in the reclamation system, demonstrated through the operation of a pilot plant for two years.

From the UK, to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain and other partners, it’s expected that cross-fertilisation will occur during the course of NextGen, with key findings helping to develop an EU Roadmap to support wider uptake of circular solutions in the water sector.

Creating a smarter water society

By building bridges between science and practice, we can position water as the enabler in the broader context of the Water-Energy-Food nexus.

We need to rethink and redesign workflows, processes and business models, including governance and shareholder participation. Resource-efficient solutions linking water treatment to industries, at scale, will help to build experience, knowledge and momentum.

In doing so, we can create local, non-relocatable direct and indirect jobs, as well as local economic development for European territories. This will help to future-proof European industries, climate-proof European society and safeguard the environment.

To unlock resources and water in the circular economy, there is a need for innovative technology, business and governance solutions.
“A rejuvenation of local, national and regional economic activity could help towards economic growth with low environmental impact.
Jos Frijns MSc
Jos Frijns MSc

Leading the Ultimate and Nextgen projects, KWR is at the forefront of scientific solutions to global water issues, both nationally and internationally.