Profile: Mark van Loosdrecht

Winner of the 2012 international Lee Kuan Water Prize for breakthrough contributions to a new energy efficient wastewater treatment technology,  Professor Mark van Loosdrecht says that with continued innovation, the wastewater industry could be sustainable and even a source of energy production.

By Jenny Marusiak in (8 March 2012):

Dutch water technology expert Mark van Loosdrecht has become the fifth winner of Singapore’s prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong, who announced the award selection at a media briefing hosted by the Singapore water agency, said that Professor van Loosdrecht was chosen for his “breakthrough contributions” to a new wastewater treatment technology called Anammox.

The new technology, which uses less energy, produces fewer carbon emissions and requires less space than existing technologies, has been in trials at Singapore’s Changi Water Reclamation facility for the past two years.

“PUB is always on the lookout for technology that can improve the efficiency of wastewater treatment…We will continue to trial the technology and hopefully adopt it,” said Mr Chew.

Tan Gee Paw, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize nominating committee said in a statement that the technology would create a “paradigm shift” in the industry.

“The adoption of such energy-saving technology is essential for used water treatment plants seeking complete energy self-sufficiency and will be the future for the industry,” he added.

Professor van Loosdrecht, an environmental biotechnologist at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, said that Anammox, which is short for Anaerobic Ammonium Oxidation, was a “completely different way of removing nitrogen from water”.

Nitrogen, in the form of ammonia, is a major source of pollution in wastewater, and removing it is a priority for treatment plants. Most plants today use bacteria to break down the substance in an energy and resource-intensive process. The process needs electricity to pump in oxygen and is fuelled with organic carbon that could otherwise be used for energy production.

His innovation simplifies the process, and requires far less oxygen and no organic carbon. The result is that carbon emissions can be reduced by up to 90 per cent and energy for pumping in oxygen can be reduced by up to 60 per cent.

“Effectively, it is a short-cut,” he said.

The bacteria used in Professor van Loosdrecht’s short-cut is neither new nor rare. Water treatment engineers have known since the 1960’s that something was causing nitrogen levels at their facilities to drop unexpectedly; but it was not until the 1990’s that researchers at TU Delft identified the bacteria.

The bacteria’s slow growth rate is both the reason it was unidentified for so long, and the biggest barrier in developing the technology, noted Professor van Loosdrecht.

Developed first in the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which chose the technology as a space-saving alternative to expanding its existing wastewater systems, Anammox has been implemented in 16 plants around the world by Paques, the Dutch environmental technology firm that owns the license for the technology.

More than 30 similar plants have been developed by other companies in various countries, including Japan, the United States, China and Austria.

The majority of the plants have been industrial wastewater facilities, including one in China – the largest to date – that treats wastewater from a monosodium glutamate factory owned by China’s Meihua Group. Meihua’s website notes that the treatment facility, which was built in 2009 to treat 11,000 kilogrammes of ammonia per day, has allowed the company to far exceed national standards for water treatment.

China’s water shortages and tightening environmental regulations make it a key market for the technology, said Professor van Loosdrecht. It is likely to see a faster uptake there than in countries such as the United States, which already have advanced wastewater technologies in place, he added.

He attributed his innovation’s success thus far to his early partnerships with water agencies and engineering firms. Developing a new technology can take 10 to 15 years, he said, and working as a team with customers leads to faster and more successful commercialisation compared to working solely within a university.

Professor van Loosdrecht, who was chosen from among 61 nominees from 25 different countries, will receive his award at the Lee Kuan Yew award ceremony on 2 July at Marina Bay Sands as part of Singapore International Water Week.

Singapore International Water Week – to be held from 1 to 5 July this year – celebrates achievements in the water world and showcases new technologies in addition to exploring best practises.

The highlight of this is the presentation of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, a high-profile international award to recognise outstanding contributions in solving global water issues.

The winner of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize delivers the annual Singapore Water Lecture and receives a cash prize of S$300,000 provided by the Singapore Millennium Foundation, a philanthropic body supported by Temasek Holdings.

Commenting on the award, Professor van Loosdrecht said that he was pleased and surprised to be chosen for the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize. However, the best recognition would be to have his ideas implemented within the industry, he added.

Compared to other water technology sectors, such as the treatment of drinking water, Professor van Loosdrecht said that the wastewater industry is facing much more pressure for change due to society’s shift in focus on reusing water.

He noted that with continued innovation, the wastewater industry could be sustainable and even a source of energy production.

“Wastewater technology is roughly 100 years old, but there is still much room for improvement,” he said.


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