Javier García Linares | Director in Galicia of Aqualia: “AQUATIM will provide new solutions to improve sector efficiency, increase resilience and recover resources in the water cycle”
Over the next three years, Aqualia, together with CETIM, will be the engine of the so-called Joint Research Unit AQUATIM, funded by the Galician Innovation Agency to foster cooperation between the research centres and enterprises that make up the business network based in Galicia. We spoke with Javier García Linares, director of the Aqualia’s Galician Delegation, about the strategic objectives of this project that seeks to recover resources such as nutrients or metals from the WWTP, as well as obtaining a fuel, green hydrogen.
What results do you hope to achieve with the Aqualia – CETIM strategic alliance for the implementation of new technologies throughout the entire water cycle?
We have high hopes for this Joint Research Unit (UMI, by its acronym in Spanish) through which we will develop new technologies. Firstly, the production of bioenergy (biohydrogen and biomethane) to transform WWTPs into biorefineries. New technologies will be introduced, such as dark fermentation for biohydrogen production or our patented ABAD Bioenergy system for the enrichment of biogas to biomethane.
Secondly, the recovery of resources in the integral water cycle will be promoted, both treated water and nutrients, critical materials such as lithium, etc.
Finally, the improvement of sanitation and urban planning with sustainable drainage systems and nature-based solutions (wetlands, lagoons, etc.) will be investigated. The vertical garden of nave H in Balaídos, in Vigo, is a good example of this.
One of the main axes of the UMI AQUATIM is the implementation of the circular economy model, from the recovery of resources such as nutrients or metals to obtaining a fuel, green hydrogen. Are wastewater, sludge and other by-products from WWTPs the raw material sources of the future?
We cannot fool society into believing that, in the short term, we can replace all fossil fuels or all fertilizers by producing bioenergy and recovering nutrients from sewage or waste. But we can be self-sufficient and eliminate the sector’s carbon footprint by integrating bioenergy and other renewable energy sources such as turbines or solar panels, as well as intelligent management of the water-energy binomial. In the LIFE PHOENIX project we work together with CETIM and other research organizations in the complete energy self-sufficiency of the WWTP. A success story is the Guillarei WWTP (Tui, NW Spain), where co-digestion is carried out with organic waste from the surrounding agri-food industries. I am convinced that these actions should be promoted and facilitated administratively.
As for green hydrogen, water companies must play a leading role since the output from our WWTP should be the source of water for the electrolysers and we can take advantage of the oxygen produced in our own facilities. In this sense, together with CETIM, we lead the ZEPPELIN, project, through which we investigate dark fermentation processes and microbial electrolysis for the production of hydrogen from treatment plants streams and substreams.
There are also critical materials such as phosphorus or lithium whose recovery in WWTP is vital. Countries like Germany already require the recovery of phosphorus in WWTPs with more than 50,000 equivalent inhabitants.
“We cannot substitute all fossil fuels or all fertilizers. But we can be self-sufficient and eliminate our sector’s carbon footprint by integrating bioenergy and other renewable energy sources such as turbines or solar panels, as well as intelligent management of the water-energy binomial.”
What role should water reuse play in the current context of climate change and water stress?
Undoubtedly, it must play a leading role, even in a community that is not used to water scarcity such as Galicia.
The technology is available, tertiary treatments are already used in Murcia to reuse more than 90% of treated wastewater for irrigation. It must be remembered that, in Spain, more than 70% of water consumption is for irrigation.
As an example, ENCE is installing osmosis plants to be able to reuse the treated water from the Placeres WWTP in Pontevedra. At Aqualia we are also collaborating with the industrial sector so that they can internally reuse their treated wastewater and thus reduce their water footprint.
Another of the axes of AQUATIM is the digitization of the water cycle. What advantages does it entail, in general for society and in particular for the citizen? Can ICTs help “push” society and industry towards that more sustainable future that we all want?
The digitization of the sector is already unstoppable and in addition to initiatives such as the UMI AQUATIM, the PERTE for water is going to promote and accelerate this transition. Transparency with the citizen is essential to know in detail the consumption habits, anticipate the demand for water and increase the resilience of the management of an increasingly scarce critical resource such as water.
Being able to exchange with the citizen aspects such as the quality of water bodies, availability of the resource or consumption habits, among others, will play a fundamental role in raising awareness of the value of water.
Once this applied research is finished, what will be the steps to transfer the AQUATIM project to the market and scale the results to other treatment plants?
Aqualia has extensive experience in the transfer of new technologies. As an example, the ELAN® autotrophic nitrogen removal process, patented by Aqualia and the USC. It already has six references on an industrial scale after going through the scaling from a test tube to a reactor of more than 1,000 m3 and will be installed next year in a major canning company. Collaboration with public administrations is also fundamental. Entities such as the Consorcio de Augas do Louro (Tui, Pontevedra) or the Zona Franca de Vigo have joined innovation projects and allow the development and scaling of these technologies in their facilities. They play a fundamental role.
Aqualia operates in 17 countries and provides services to some 30 million people, therefore, the potential for replication of the technologies developed is very broad.
Aqualia is the fourth largest water company in Europe by population served and the ninth in the world, according to the latest Global Water Intelligence ranking. What are your current and future challenges to maintain and even improve this position?
The challenges and objectives are set on improving sustainability and resilience in the management of the integral water cycle. In this current context that is so complicated with high energy prices and the alteration of the rainfall pattern caused by climate change, Aqualia must respond with new technologies and efficient ways of managing a resource as valuable as water. Among other lines, we are working on the development of new solutions in all stages of the water cycle, in the recognition of leaks and improvements in hydraulic performance, optimization of drinking water treatment and desalination, transformation of WWTP into biofactories or digitalization of networks both drinking water and sanitation.
Finally, we would like to know your opinion about the role that Galicia plays and should play in the innovation and improvement of the water cycle.
I think it should and does play a key role. Since I joined in January of this year as director of the Galician Delegation, I am very clear about the potential that this wonderful land has and the support we receive from the administrations is essential to continue innovating. To do this, I am lucky to have an R&D department that allows us to face any type of challenge obtaining magnificent results, always with the aim of taking these technologies to an industrial scale and that the citizen can benefit from it. .
Today, Galicia is facing water shortages in summer and torrential rains in winter. I am convinced that AQUATIM will provide new solutions that will improve the efficiency of the sector, increase resilience and recover resources in the water cycle.
The actions carried out by the Joint Research Unit “AQUATIM” are subsidized by the Galician Innovation Agency within the framework of the 2022 call for the Mixed Research Units Program (File: IN853A2022/05).