AQUA STRATEGY | A growth opportunity – how recovery of phosphorus from wastewater is bringing success for Ostara

Oct 1, 2016

A growth opportunityRecovery of phosphorus from municipal wastewater to produce fertiliser products is increasingly being recognised as a viable opportunity for utilities. Keith Hayward spoke with Phillip Abrary, Chairman and CEO of Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc., about his company’s growing success as the sector looks to play its part in a shift to a circular economy.

October 2016 – Read original article

Four months ago, Vancouver-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc. celebrated what is likely to prove to be an important landmark for the company. This was when one of its latest phosphate recovery installations came on line at the Amersfoort wastewater treatment plant in the Netherlands. ‘It’s not the first plant in Europe, but it’s the first with our entire suite of technologies implemented in a fairly advanced sludge processing environment,’ comments Phillip Abrary, Ostara’s Chairman and CEO.

Ostara’s technologies allow for the recovery and processing of the phosphate found in municipal wastewater. Biological wastewater treatment can remove phosphate from the main flow, intentionally or unintentionally, so that it is then present in the sludge flow. Ostara’s technologies remove it from there and convert it to a high quality fertiliser product known as Crystal Green. The company has a demonstration installation in place in the UK, at Thames Water’s Slough sewage treatment plant, and a third European plant is just being completed in Madrid. The Amersfoort plant therefore marked the arrival of the technology in mainland Europe, in a country that has taken a lead exploring different approaches to wastewater management.

The advanced Amersfoort plant includes thermal hydrolysis and digestion to process the sludge stream, ammonia removal in a sidestream, and Ostara’s WASSTRIP technology to enhance phosphorus recovery and Pearl system to produce the Crystal Green product, based on the phosphate form struvite. ‘It’s definitely a nice site to have in operation,’ says Abrary. ‘The Netherlands is a place where all forms of phosphorus removal and recovery are in use, and one can easily then compare and contrast them, and really get a deeper understanding of what our offering is versus some of the others in the marketplace.’

The importance of early installations

This early phase of establishing the company’s technologies in Europe through such plants is vital for what lies ahead. ‘It’s critical,’ says Abrary. ‘These are full-scale commercial sites, so they’re an important way of establishing for the European market that this technology is real, how it works, how the commercial model works, and [for it to] have live customers to speak with.’

‘We have a much more established base in North America, so it’s a lot easier,’ Abrary continues. ‘In Europe it’s critically important. And it seems it’s critically important to be situated in both key countries as well as all different countries, so that you have the local market paying attention to your technology as being relevant.’

North American success

The progress in Europe is following on from what Ostara has achieved to date in North America, where there are now more than 10 plants operating or being completed. ‘Our very first plant in North America was started up in spring of 2009,’ notes Abrary. Two are in Canada, in Edmonton and Saskatoon, with the remainder in the US.

‘Most importantly, the most recent plant that was commissioned this summer is a facility at the Stickney plant in Chicago, which also happens to be one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the world,’ adds Abrary. ‘So, we’re not only in many different locations, but also in some of the largest and most complex facilities in the United States.’

The presence Ostara has now achieved in North America, coupled with the nature of market, means the company has been able to move beyond the phase where winning business depended upon demonstration plants. ‘We used to do a lot of pilot projects. Those have become more or less irrelevant now because people would rather just go see a live one than run a small pilot in their facility,’ says Abrary. ‘The North American market tends to be more homogenous: there tends to be more of a sharing of information and a greater degree of consistency. So if something becomes accepted by the market, there’s much less regional variability,’ he continues, adding: ‘In Europe, where you have a great deal of regional variability, that means you really have to have local presence to be recognised.’

The end product

The final product, Crystal Green, is an important aspect of Ostara’s offering. ‘We can create a product that meets the criteria for fertiliser users in terms of purity, in terms of size and form factor – everything that is necessary for this to be seamlessly integrated into the fertiliser supply chain,’ says Abrary. He emphasises also that a lot of research and market development has gone into creating a strong product from the end user’s perspective. ‘We’re not selling this as a waste by-product, or as something that is just an additional soil amendment-type nutrient – this is positioned as a high-value, high-efficiency fertiliser, because that’s what it is. And to do that you have to have very good science and very strong evidence of its efficacy,’ he adds.

It is notable also that Ostara takes on the task of finding the outlet for the Crystal Green product. ‘Value is then passed on back to our customers,’ says Abrary. ‘Not only are they recovering these nutrients and making them available for reuse in a very efficient way, but there’s a revenue component which really becomes attractive then for the overall economics of the offering.’

Circular economy signals

The Crystal Green offering therefore fits with the growing interest in creating a circular economy, where resources of all kinds are recycled, rather than being used only once. ‘In Europe we’re already seeing a market awareness of the circular economy and a need to be very efficient with these sorts of resources. In fact I think Europe’s even perhaps ahead of North America on that front,’ says Abrary. He puts this down in particular to Europe’s reliance on imported phosphates.

‘We have even had progress within the European Union on some work that was done to evaluate Crystal Green as a type of product that could potentially meet organic farming standards,’ he adds.

‘The reality is that this investment typically has a five-year payback for the utility, so there is an economic value. Without those economic drivers, it becomes very difficult for a technology to gain adoption.’

Phillip Abrary, Ostara Chairman and CEO

An emphasis on recycling also fits with a need to reduce pollution. Abrary points out that Crystal Green is not water soluble, so helping in this respect, and says he sees a fit with utilities having a wider role in safeguarding watersheds. ‘By creating a fertiliser by-product that they can sell and have used in the market which has a far smaller nutrient footprint in terms of runoff or leaching, they’re doing a much greater job in terms of watershed management,’ he says. Not only does what would otherwise be a pollutant get removed from the waste stream, but the final product helps displace the type of highly water soluble phosphate fertiliser generally used in agriculture today, he adds.

A clear financial incentive

A move to use of such technology can be seen as a positive shift towards an approach that fits with the circular economy, but utilities are motivated also by more immediate concerns, such as the costs associated with the unwanted precipitation of phosphorus in their plants in the form of struvite.

‘First and foremost it’s all about the economics and doing things better, making the plants run better, which is what most of our utility customers are very concerned about,’ says Abrary. ‘The reality is that this investment typically has a five-year payback for the utility, so there is an economic value. Without those economic drivers, it becomes very difficult for a technology to gain adoption.’

‘This is why we have been successful in a relatively short period, at least for the water industry, to get so much adoption,’ he continues. ‘It’s because first and foremost the economics make sense versus a conventional alternative, which is really to chemically precipitate out the phosphorus, take it out with the biosolids and then dispose of it. All those things have real dollar impacts for a utility.’

Achieving growth

The company has only a limited number of plants in place, especially in Europe. But there Abrary sees that the need to remove nutrients is fairly widespread and so can be expected to drive interest in phosphate removal. ‘In some countries, for example Switzerland, the implementation of new regulations requiring the recovery of certain percentages of nutrients in waste is becoming an even greater driver,’ he adds. ‘Most of the regulatory framework is there, and the economics and the challenges and the drivers are really no different in Europe than they are in North America.’

‘What needs to happen is that we need to have these reference sites, which we now have three of in Europe,’ he continues. ‘We need to have more of those, and the strategy we’re deploying in Europe is also working through local partners in various countries and really leveraging those partners’ knowledge of the market and their ability to execute in terms of selling and delivering projects to be more able to move quickly in individual markets, rather than trying to centrally control all of that,’ he says, adding: ‘The idea is to have more partners in more countries.’

Clearly there are opportunities for the technology in other parts of the world. ‘There’s obviously the big markets like China, for example, where there’s a great deal of activity in the deployment of environmental technologies, and water and wastewater treatment are high on their agenda,’ he notes. ‘We’re developing projects in those areas very opportunistically: if something really great comes along and we see the opportunity, then we will pursue it, but we’re not actively engaged, because you can only do so many things or you start limiting your effectiveness.’

‘The biggest challenge for us is to get even more accelerated adoption, to hit a wider audience, to make the market more aware,’ Abrary adds. ‘It’s always a challenge – the water industry always tends to be fairly conservative in making decisions and change. We’re hoping that with the existing momentum we can get there, but it’s going to be through a lot of hard work still. So we’re still committing a lot of resources to helping grow the market.’

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