VANCOUVER SUN | Vancouver’s Ostara aims to harvest from municipal waste rather than mining phosphorus
An employee tends to reactor vessels that extract phosphorous from the waste water treatment process, designed by Vancouver company Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, at the Rock Creek treatment facility in Hilsboro, Oregon. The plant is owned by Clean Water Services.
July 29, 2016 – By Derrick Penner –
The Vancouver-headquartered company that has already carved a niche out of harvesting phosphorus from the sewage treatment process to make fertilizer is betting it’s on the path to bigger business with its latest installation.
“We feel we’re ready for a much more accelerated phase of growth for the company now that we’re firmly established and have all sorts of scales of facilities in operation,” said Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies CEO Phillip Abrary after just returning from their latest opening in Amersfoorst, Netherlands, south east of Amsterdam.
The system was installed as part of the Dutch Waterboard Vallei & Veluwe’s effort to transform its Amersfoorst sewage treatment plant into an “energy and nutrient recovery factory,” and is now one of 14 installations (12 of which are in operation) around North America and Europe.
Abrary wouldn’t reveal the value of the installation. As a private company he said they don’t disclose financial information, though he said equipment typically runs about $5 million to $10 million.
And while the Amersfoorst system is smaller than the one Ostara has in place at the Stickney water reclamation plant that serves Metropolitan Chicago’s population of 4.5 million, Abrary still counts it as an important step for his company.
“The Dutch, who are very environmentally conscious and aware, it was something to be proud of,” Abrary said.
Its growing roster of projects makes the company one of the more senior startups in Vancouver’s so-called clean-technology sector making a splash in water treatment.
Ostara was founded in 2006 as a spinoff from a research project at the University of B.C.’s civil engineering department led by professor Donald Mavinic.
In recent years Ostara has been joined by firms such as Axine Water Technologies, another startup out of UBC, which is aiming to neutralize organic compounds in industrial waste water.
Ostara’s specialty is recovering nutrients. Abrary said Mavinic discovered that phosphorus, and some nitrogen, in the liquid that comes out of anaerobic digesters, in systems that use such digesters, can be crystallized by adding magnesium and altering the pH level of the fluid. That process is referred to as precipitation. It doesn’t recover all of the phosphorus in waste. Abrary said about 50 per cent of the nutrient winds up in the liquid, and it recovers between 85 per cent and 90 per cent of that. The other half winds up in trapped in solids.
However, in Ostara’s process, the crystals within the liquid form into pellets of magnesium ammonium phosphate that can be dried and sorted.
The beauty of the material for use in fertilizers, Abrary said, is that it doesn’t dissolve in water and won’t wash out of a farmer’s field.
Instead, it is activated to release its nutrients by the acids that the roots of plants secrete when they’re trying to feed. Ostara markets it under the name Crystal Green.
“To make a high purity product that could be marketable, that’s what’s different about this,” Abrary said.
The process opens up the opportunity to create an ongoing source of revenue for their business model, he said. Ostara installs the equipment, cone-shaped reactor vessels that control the process, at municipal sewage treatment plants. Then the municipalities operate the extraction system — with ongoing monitoring and support from Ostara — and collect the crystals in one-tonne sacks.
Ostara steps back in when a system has collected quantities of Crystal Green to warrant packing up for sale. Some of the revenue goes back to the treatment-plant operator, the rest goes back to Ostara.
“So, really, we have two revenue streams,” Abrary said, between selling the technology of the recovery system, then selling the product.
“Eventually, the product stream will be greater than the technology stream,” he said.
The extraction process also has a financial benefit for the operators of treatment systems that is perhaps a bigger incentive than extracting phosphorus, argues Troy Vassos, an expert in water treatment from UBC.
“(This) is a sidebar technology to collect phosphorus so it doesn’t create problems in the plant,” Vassos said.
Vassos said plants don’t discharge the phosphorus-containing water that Ostara takes in. Without the system, they would pour that liquid back into the front end of their treatment systems to get more of it out. However, reprocessing the fluid that has already been through treatment consumes more energy and adds to a plant’s cost, Vassos said.
And phosphorus will begin to form anyway if it is allowed to run back through pipes, but in locations that might gum up a plant’s equipment and raising its maintenance costs, Vassos said.
“There’s no real magic to what (Ostara) is doing,” Vassos said, there are other companies doing it. “It’s just technology, and the ability to generate (phosphorus) crystals perhaps more economically than competitors.”
Not all treatment plants are set up in a way to accumulate phosphorus in a way that it can be harvested in a process such as Ostara’s, Vassos added, and phosphorus isn’t an environmental problem for plants in coastal locations.
The market for Ostara’s technology is increasing, Abrary said, and the company is in discussion with other potential customers in Europe and North America.
“The next thing is to double our installation base again in the next couple of years,” Abrary said, “and really to meet the anticipated demand for the product in the agricultural sector.”