At times, discussing the challenges facing our environment – especially as it pertains to expansive issues like water pollution – can be overwhelming and discouraging. While these worries are not misplaced, it’s important to talk about solutions and appreciate improvements too. Yes, there are a lot of obstacles ahead of us, but there are also a lot of amazing people in BC working to improve the way we interact with the environment. Clean tech, in particular, is an incredibly inspiring sector.
In March, before the spring legislative sitting got too busy, I had the distinct honor of visiting a clean tech company that is transforming the way industrial companies treat their wastewater; Axine Water Technologies Inc., based on UBC’s Vancouver campus. Jonathan Rhone, Axine’s Chief Executive Officer, and Jessica Verhagen, the Business Development Executive, walked me through the basics of their electrochemical technology and took me on a tour of their facility. It was a morning that left me marveling at human ingenuity and excited about the potential for progress in reducing the environmental impact of a wide range of industries.
Axine has developed an innovative, low cost, chemical-free way for large companies to clean industrial wastewater by removing high concentrations of complex, toxic organics and ammonia. Their system has simultaneously solved a multi-billion dollar headache for companies, and a staggering environmental problem.
Over 10 billion pounds of toxic chemical wastewater are produced annually from chemical, pharmaceutical, petroleum product, and electronic manufacturers in the US. As Jonathan told me in our meeting, that wastewater is becoming more complex, hazardous, difficult, and expensive to treat, posing a growing threat to communities and industry.
“Billions of gallons are so toxic that the only solution is to truck it off-site to be incinerated or pumped into a deep injection well,” he continued. Jessica added that these wastewaters are subject to increasingly stringent regulations, putting pressure on industry to find the lowest cost solutions.
In a system that requires far less electricity than other electrochemical processes, Axine uses electrolytic cells to create free radicals that react with organic compounds, breaking them down into water, nitrogen, a small amount of carbon dioxide and a high-quality stream of hydrogen. Cells are combined in a modular system that is scalable, versatile, and easily adjusted to accommodate different volumes. It requires no chemicals, produces no sludge and can be used to process a wide range of industrial effluent. Once treated, cleaned water can be reused on site, greatly reducing overall industrial water use.
Their system can be integrated into existing treatment plants to target specific pain points without disrupting operations, Jonathan explained. “Our service model enables customers to access the technology with minimal capital investment and technology risk. We eliminate off-site trucking and disposal, reduce production bottlenecks, increase water reuse and ensure compliance with discharge standards.”
To see their design in action Goran Sparica, their Senior Vice President of Engineering and Operations, took me on a tour of their lab. Amongst the engineers in lab coats were a series of sealed off compartments with glass windows. Some seemed to have wastewater mid-treatment, with murky water on one side and clear water on the other.
“Very toxic,” Goran mentioned as we passed a fridge filled with hazardous waste. Stopping at their field pilot prototype Goran explained how waste-water can be treated in 24 hours, noting that there is nothing like this in the world, “we’re the first to do it.”
Though there is huge interest in their technology from China and India, they are going to finish testing in North America before they further explore that market.
To help the sector compete globally, however, the clean tech sector in B.C. and Canada will need industry-specific leadership from provincial and federal governments. Axine was among the nearly 200 clean technology companies from across Canada that wrote to the federal government last month, asking for focused budgetary support.
The clean tech industry in Canada is composed of more than 800 firms that are environmentally safe, diverse, and employ more than 50,000 people. By 2022 it is expected to be a $50 billion dollar industry. It is Canada’s fastest growing sector.
Back on a smaller scale, Jonathan spoke fondly of the company they are developing. “We have incredible employees. Lots of young people who are so passionate about what they’re doing. We’re having a ton of fun, solving environmental problems on the ground floor and building a more sustainable economy.”
March 15, 2017