Rapid population growth, urbanisation, and agricultural expansion have contributed to Asia’s stellar economic growth in the past decade, but this has also stressed water resources to a point where most countries have poor water security.
At the same time, a lack of sanitation and inadequate industrial wastewater treatment have led to dangerously high levels of pollution in many parts of the region.
China, in particular, is one of the worst afflicted countries. In 2014, its environment ministry reported that 60 per cent of underground water and one-third of its surface water were “unfit for human contact” due to pollution.
But while this is presenting a huge challenge to the central government, one company is viewing it as a multi-million dollar opportunity.
Australian bio-technology company BioGill says it is confident that it can help China and other emerging nations with similar pollution problems treat wastewater in an affordable and low-carbon way.
The company, founded in 2009, has patented a water treatment system that it says can clean up water that is too difficult for other systems to handle.
Over the past year, BioGill has been applying its technology in the aquaculture industry in China together with a Fortune 100 company. Last month, it also appointed Shanghai-based firm Youbo Environmental Technology as its first distributor, and hopes to offer its technology to China’s food processing industry, as well as for sewage treatment in resorts and villages.
In addition to its proven applications in treating industrial wastewater and sewage, Mikael Krogh, managing director, BioGill Asia, tells Eco-Business that the same technology, with a few tweaks, can potentially also help reduce the environmental impact of shipping in the region, which is home to some of the busiest ports in the world.
Earlier in January, the company embarked on a joint study with Singaporean tertiary institution Singapore Polytechnic and other partners to develop a way to clean up oil slicks and debris from seawater in ports.
At the centre of BioGill’s patented technology is a Nano Ceramic Membrane that enables the company to clean polluted water more effectively and cheaply than conventional wastewater treatment solutions.
“Five-star accommodation for bacteria”
In 2007, BioGill founder John West first discovered these special membranes, at a science convention in Australia.
They were first developed by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in the early 2000s as a way to speed up the growth of Penicillium fungus, which produces the widely used antibiotic Penicillin.
The membranes are unique because they provide an especially conducive environment for bacteria to grow, and also allow these micro-organisms to grow on and through the membrane. As Krogh puts it, they are “five-star accommodation for bacteria, with free access to air and nutrition”.
Using micro-organisms like bacteria to digest nutrients from wastewater is a common industry practice. In 2009, West decided to buy the licence to use the Nano-Ceramic Membranes for water treatment as he could see the potential of these membranes for cleaning polluted water more effectively than existing solutions.
In 2012, West took over the full intellectual property rights to the technology from ANSTO and began to commercialise the BioGill bioreactor.
Two key elements make the technology unique: the NanoCeramic Membrane and the unit design. The membrane provides an excellent surface for biomass attachment. The unit design, a ‘gill structure’, is a set of the patented membranes folded into a loop with free access to air on one side and access to nutrients on the other.
Running the process only requires a low-pressure water pump, which takes the wastewater from a treatment tank up to the top of the BioGill and disperses it over the membranes.
Water then sprays over the membranes and travels down along them, propelled by nothing but gravity. Bacteria already existent in the water clump together, adhere to, and grow on the membrane, and after about six weeks, form a stable body of biomass that can digest nutrients rapidly.
Micro-organisms growing on the gills are able to feed off nutrients in the liquid stream on one side of the gill while drawing oxygen from the opposite side.
This process of passing wastewater over the membranes continues until the liquid in the tank has reached the desired level of cleansing. Then, it moves onto the next stage of treatment and the tank is filled with a new batch of water. Continuous treatment is also an option for larger scale projects.
More treatment, lower cost
BioGill’s solution has a key difference from many others in the market, says Krogh. That is, its location above ground.
The membrane and the configuration enables BioGill bioreactors to provide the bacteria with constant access to oxygen, which eliminates the need for aerators which are used in conventional wastewater treatment plants, where the bacteria are submerged in the water. Removing the aerators reduces both energy use and operating costs.
It’s easy to operate, has low energy costs, and multiple areas of application. We are excited to help address Asia’s sustainable development challenges through our product.
Mikael Krogh, managing director, BioGill Asia
Because of the readily available oxygen, BioGill systems can also effectively digest fats, oils, and high concentrations of nutrients present in the wastewater, explains Krogh, who heads the company’s Singapore office. This feature enables BioGill bioreactors to treat water that is too difficult for conventional systems with submerged biomass to handle.
These qualities make the BioGill bioreactor ideal for a number of applications ranging from industrial wastewater facilities to helping the aquaculture, or seafood farming, industry provide a clean and healthy living environment for their stock.
The latter is achieved through improving the water quality in fresh and saltwater environments by reducing ammonia, nitrite, and other aquaculture waste products, says Krogh.
This process sounds simple enough, but it can be a challenge to get clients to understand how the technology works, says Jeremy Wilson, an associate engineer in BioGill’s Australia office.
And even after the contract has been clinched, BioGill is responsible for ensuring that each installation works perfectly, adds Wilson. If the engineers tasked with installing the units for overseas clients do not have proper instructions to follow, this can be difficult.
These were key challenges the company grappled with until 2014, when it gained access to Autodesk software, which allowed it to communicate the technical abilities and specifications of its product more effectively to distributors, clients, and installation engineers alike.
Autodesk is one of the leading software companies in 3D design, engineering and entertainment.
Through a national initiative to identify and support local technology firms called the Australian Technologies Competition, Autodesk invited BioGill to participate in its Entrepreneur Impact Programme.
This programme supports early-stage start-ups and entrepreneurs in the social, cleantech, and environmental sectors by granting them Autodesk software worth up to US$150,000 to design, visualise, and simulate their ideas and accelerate their time to market.
Thanks to this opportunity, BioGill was able to use a programme called AutoCAD LT to produce detailed technical drawings, providing information including: how the system operates, how it will fit into the client’s existing operations and allocated site space, the specification of components ,and detailed instructions on how the system should be assembled and installed.
“It all comes down to effective communication,” says Wilson. “The professional quality of the technical drawings also impresses clients,” he adds.
Thanks to the successful combination of software and engineering expertise, BioGill is now enjoying brisk business in the region.
The company has sold more than 200 units to clients from various industries in 17 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Taiwan, USA, and Singapore.
Krogh shares that the company’s solution has even reached Fiji, where its reactors are helping a fast-growing eco-resort on the remote Mantaray Island to treat wastewater from the hotel kitchens, and also sewage from its guest rooms. This enables the resort to avoid discharging any untreated water into the ocean.
Regardless of the industry, the process of installing and operating the bio-reactor is virtually the same, requiring low and easy maintenance, says Krogh. Customers tell BioGill how much water they need to treat and to what degree, and the company calculates the number of units required and what kind of process flow design is optimum.
After the units have been delivered and set up, clients simply plug them in and wait for about six weeks for the biomass to grow. The technology is suitable as a standalone water-treatment system, or as a retrofit option to improve under-performing facilities, says Krogh.
It is a formula that seems to work. Last year, the company expanded its operations with a new Asia office in Singapore. Since 2009, the company has also grown from an initiative by West alone to a team of 19 employees across its Australia and Singapore teams.
Krogh is excited about BioGill’s involvement in cleaning up wastewater in Asia’s rapidly developing economies, in sectors such as sewage treatment, food and beverages, and aquaculture.
The company is also particularly optimistic about the new possibilities offered by its research in Singapore as BioGill uncovers even more uses for the system, he adds.
“BioGill is easy to operate, has low energy costs, and multiple areas of application,” he says. “We are excited to help address Asia’s sustainable development challenges through our product.”
BioGill is part of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program. The program supports early-stage start-ups and entrepreneurs in the social, cleantech, and environmental sectors. As part of the program, eligible companies receive world-class software to design, visualise, and simulate their ideas and accelerate their time to market through 3D Digital Prototyping. To apply for or learn more, visit www.autodesk.com/entrepreneurimpact and follow @AutodeskImpact.