Phosphorus pollution is creating havoc for freshwater health globally. On the rise in our precious water ecosystems, phosphorus is accelerating algal blooms and weed growth, often by way of agricultural runoff. Last year, the Environmental Commissioner published the Every Drop Counts report, which featured a chapter dedicated to the topic, indicating that Ontario should take this threat seriously.
There is also the added incentive to recover and reuse phosphorus: it is a non-renewable resource that is critical for producing food. In other words, we need this nutrient to feed a growing planet. Since the removal of this resource can be labourious and expensive, there is a pressing need for a low-cost and reliable solution.
In Florida, where this issue is especially prominent, the Everglades Foundation has created a $10-million incentive with its George Barley Water Prize, of which the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) is a funding partner.
This March, nine companies entered the semi-final round of the competition, beginning an intensive three-month on-site demonstration. For this trial, the Everglades Foundation selected the Holland Marsh at Lake Simcoe in Ontario. The Marsh’s phosphate buildup and cold climate offer challenges that are faced in the Great Lakes. These technologies may help Ontario meet phosphorus reduction targets for Lake Erie in the future.
Two Canadian teams rank among a global demographic in this final phase: Econse Water Purification Systems Inc. from Toronto, Ontario and a group from the University of Waterloo. WaterTAP recently caught up with the former to chat about their successful advancement and why they think their company is poised for success.
From breweries to phosphorous
“More than a year ago at the Canadian Water Summit, we spoke on sustainable practices and water treatment related to craft breweries,” says Derek Davy, Head of Business Development at Econse. “We were contacted by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the MOECC, who had taken note of our ability to separate liquids and solids, treat high-strength waste, and reduce nutrients, such as phosphorus with our BrüClean System.”
As a result of this meeting, Econse was asked to work with agricultural vegetable washers for some trials with the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association in the Bradford region. “We got to learn more about how phosphorus was affecting world communities, and its relationship to agricultural industry, especially what growers would possibly be facing in terms of upcoming regulations,” he says.
In summer 2017, based on the successful trial, Econse was invited to apply to compete for the George Barley Prize. The company received an Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) grant to help offset the cost of hiring summer students from Georgian College to run some of the initial operations baseline of a few weeks’ continuous operation in a controlled environment for evaluating phosphorus reduction.
“There were hundreds of technologies from around the world competing to make the final cut,” Davy says. “We were honoured to be invited to participate in such a prestigious research project.”
Taking a practical approach
Econse moved successfully into the third round of the competition at the Holland Marsh pump station. “We had been fortunate to have experienced the challenges of the marsh and were able to incorporate the lessons we learned into an improved design,” Davy says. “Furthermore, our technology does not have any membranes to clog, which bodes well for the agricultural conditions we face in the competition.”
“We differ from our competitors in that we have an active mechanical system that does not use chemicals, and works in low temperature and high solid situations,” he says. “Our approach is practical and we aim to be the most cost-effective solution.”
Davy notes that there is a significant difference between the daily volumes of a brewery and a and a marsh pump station. “Fortunately, going bigger is easier than going smaller with our technology,” he says.
“Although I must admit I prefer craft beer to carrots, I would take treating marsh water over brewery wastewater any day,” Davy says. “It wasn’t difficult to adapt our technology to reduce phosphorus.”
“We purposefully chose craft beer as a place to start our company and showcase what we can do because it allowed us to cut our teeth, so to speak, on what is proving to be the most challenging water situation we have encountered thus far,” he says. “The pH levels and solid loads fluctuate dynamically, so if you can handle rapidly changing water conditions, then you can handle many other dynamic scenarios.”
Davy says that the competition is bringing more attention to the company. “One of the major benefits of participating in the challenge is that we have received recognition after years of real, selfless hard work,” Davy says. “I’m ecstatic for my colleagues Andrew H. Amiri and Neil Sosebee, who have put their heart and soul into this technology and sacrificed a lot to succeed.”
“The competition is enabling us to showcase our vision for what is possible with our target audience, which is small-to-mid-sized communities and users who are challenged by the new regulations and the lack of affordable treatment,” he says. “This event is going to help Econse get the word out about what we’re doing.”
“The best outcome possible is that we will be able to connect to potential clients looking for a solution such as ours,” Davy says. “We develop the technology, but it can be difficult to get exposure to the right audience.”
Econse is showing no signs of slowing down. “After the George Barley competition finishes, we want to continue doing work with food and beverage producers, but expand our efforts to include remediation for conservation authorities, treatment of stormwater runoff, water reuse for agricultural producers, and pilot projects to reduce the impact of animal manure from farms,” Davy says. “In terms of phosphorus remediation we want to help source and non-point source remediation for rest of the country and the United States.”
And Davy is thankful for the ongoing support he has received from WaterTAP during this process. “As always, WaterTAP has been great as a sounding board for ideas and for helping us understand the upcoming regulations and policies about water tech sector in Ontario,” he says. “WaterTAP has high-level visibility of issues that are coming down the pipeline. Working with this organization helps us feel like we have our pulse on the most current issues and challenges affecting the sector.”
Josh Chong is a communications strategist at WaterTAP.
Pictured at top (L-R): Neil Sosebee, Andrew H. Amiri, and Derek Davy of Econse. Credit: WaterTAP/Josh Chong.