Wetsus knows about water

Water is a scarce resource. Much research is needed to provide mankind with sufficient clean water in the future. And innovations that are picked up by the business community. In Wetsus, European centre for sustainable water technology, knowledge institutes and the business community join forces to realise these innovations. This has already yielded various results.

Cees Buisman is Managing Director of Wet­sus. “The water problem is more urgent than the CO2 issue,” he argues. And we will also notice the consequences sooner if nothing changes. Every year, the World Bank provides an overview of groundwater reserves worldwide, and those are steadily decreasing. In time, there will no longer be enough water in many places to irrigate agricultural areas, which will compromise the food supply.”

He sees four major challenges for water scientists. The first is cleaning water. Every­where in the world, rivers are still so pollu­ted that they pose a threat to nature in their catchment areas and the seas into which they flow. A second challenge is the infrastructure and the pipeline network. “In Great Britain, 40% of water is lost due to poor maintenance. In the Netherlands this is just 2%.”

The third challenge is to recover nutrients and chemicals from wastewater. “Nutrients are finite and indispensable for growing our food. We can prevent shortages of essential substances if we remove them from our food.” The fourth challenge is to use less water, because water scarcity is a major threat.

Cees Buisman

Combating algae in the Everglades

The Everglades is a natural area of tropical wetlands in the southern part of the American state of Florida. Water that leaves Lake Okeechobee in the wet season forms a slowly moving river of 97 kilometres wide and 160 kilometres long. The water flows southwards over a limestone-floored basin to the bay of Florida.

The area suffers from excessive algae growth. This is due to the high phosphate content of the water that flows through the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee. The state of Florida has organised a competition to combat this algae infestation. Wetsus is participating in this competition with a team. The team has won the first two rounds and has made it into the final round. Wetsus’ solution is based on an iron compound that bonds the phosphate molecules. As a result, the algae are starved of food and disappear.

Wetsus and three other teams are proceeding to the final round, on location in Florida. However, participation will require a substantial investment of around 1 million euros. But the winner will receive a prize of 10 million dollars. Wetsus and its partner companies are looking into financing the project. If they win the prize, the method can also be applied in many other areas that suffer algae problems.

Creating a new culture

The strength of Wetsus is that it brings together many scientific disciplines, says Buisman. “Professors from different disciplines often do not speak each other’s language and are entrenched in their own academic culture. Smart solutions require a multidisci­plinary approach, across the boundaries of disciplines. That is why at Wetsus, we bring PhD students together who, together, create a new culture and understand each other.”

These researchers are mainly involved in ‘high-risk research’. “This means that we focus on things that are not yet working, solutions that do not yet exist. Nor is there any guarantee that the research will produce results. But the potential profit is great. We notice that companies are prepared to take that risk and, for example, to start pilots to try things out.”

Wetsus has a network of over a hundred companies that invest in research. The companies are closely involved in drawing up the research proposals. “The ideas can come from anywhere,” says Buisman. “Professors, students, companies, we also have ‘research scouts’ who keep an eye on where questions arise. An important criterion is whether it is of benefit to the world. And whether companies believe in it and want to contribute to it financially.”

Blue energy

An appealing example of Wetsus’ research is the ‘blue energy’ project. This project generates energy from the encounter between salt water and fresh water. Fresh water is guided along salt water, separated by membranes. A chemical reaction releases energy. The process is still under development and there is a pilot plant on the Afsluitdijk. This way of generating electricity has great potential.

Wetsus is also looking for ways to extract sodium from greenhouse water. “Water from greenhouses where tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables are grown contains all kinds of substances, such as pesticides and nutrients. If we can remove the sodium, the water can be reused again and the grower hardly needs to add any new substances. That is of benefit for the company and the environment.”

Wetsus is working hard to bring new technologies to light to make more effective use of water. Director Buisman fears, however, that water problems cannot be solved by science alone. We also need to change our lifestyle. “Livestock farming places a huge burden on the available water. If you want a healthy balance in the long term, we should not eat more than 100 grams of red meat per week. We eat five times as much now.”