Come, friendly bombs, don’t fall on Slough. It’s doing good for humans now: Berkshire town to launch £2m nutrient-recovery reactor

Nov 6, 2013

The Independent

Once mocked by Sir John Betjeman and Ricky Gervais, the town is now home to a unique machine that is turning sewage into high-grade phosphorous fertiliser – and could hold the key to securing future global food supplies.

Stop someone in the street and ask them to name something about Slough, and you are likely to hear “David Brent” or a poem describing bombs dropping on it muttered in response.

From today, however, The Office and Sir John Betjeman may not be the only famous associations connected with the Berkshire town as it emerges as a fully fledged eco-warrior.

Around the corner from the trading estate made famous in Ricky Gervais’s sitcom lies a rather unique machine that is turning sewage into high-grade phosphorous fertiliser – and its owners claim the giant funnel holds the key to securing future global food supplies.

On the eve of the official launch of the £2m nutrient-recovery reactor, the first of its kind in Europe, The Independent was given a sneak preview of it at Thames Water’s sewage treatment works.

Betjeman may have written of “the mess they call a town” in his 10-stanza poem, but it is actually the unique properties of the mess from Slough that is the reason why the fertiliser machine is located here. Thanks to food and pharmaceutical industries nearby – Mars and GlaxoSmithKline are just up the road – Slough sewage, or “the unique vintage of wastewater,” as Thames Water put it, is particularly ripe for phosphorus recovery.

Piers Clark, the water company’s commercial director and the brains behind the project, beams as we gaze over what can only be described as a steaming pile of sludge. “That is sludge cake,” he says proudly. “It’s taken away and used as a soil conditioner or landfill and the liquid that comes off the sludge from drying it is then pumped into our reactor to make the crystalline fertiliser pellets.”

The reactor itself is housed in what appears to be a giant shed that contains the funnel, or Pearl Reactor to give it its proper name. Ostara, a University of Vancouver spin-out company, is the Canadian firm that makes the machine. Thames Water has an agreement to pay a monthly fee over 20 years for treatment capacity.

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