There is only a real innovation with implementation. Otherwise you merely have a new idea. Bringing together science and industry is therefore essential. And hereby you must above all be realistic. Mark van Loosdrecht, Professor in Environmental Biotechnology and Water Treatment at Delft University of Technology will in particular focus on this message on 15 November during the AIWW Summit 2018. In August, together with Bruce Rittmann of Arizona State University, he won the prestigious 2018 Stockholm Water Prize for their revolutionary work on improving (waste) water treatment.

‘We are examining how micro-organisms are involved in purifying water and drinking water. Traditionally the focus is always on sludge, and not on the specific organisms in the sludge. Historically water purification is in particular a civil-engineering domain, it never involved much biology. When you develop a better understanding of the biological processes in water purification, you can improve this purification. When you observe new organisms, you can conceive new processes. I regard this prize, which is more or less the most important prize in the international water world, as a token of appreciation for this search.

Such a search, from idea to application, costs time and money. When you see opportunities, you must share your enthusiasm with persons who want to implement an idea, who want to take the lead and who want to include colleagues in their organisation. You must carry out pilots for many years and show that everything remains stable. In a reactor in the lab you can prove the basic principles, but then everything has to be adapted to the actual situation and the actual scale. The first patent for a membrane bioreactor dates from 1967, but it was only in 2000 that the first reactors operated on domestic waste water. With an innovation such as Nereda it ultimately took about ten years before purifications were carried out on a large scale, and it was not possible to do this much faster.

The message I want to convey during the Amsterdam International Water Week (AIWW) Summit 2018 in Rotterdam on 15 November is that there should be a greater focus on innovation and bringing inventions and implementation together: assessing with each other where the bottlenecks are and how you can think of solutions in this respect.

For innovation I apply the definition of Schumpeter: You only have innovation when there is implementation, when it is applied in practice. Otherwise you only have something new. Sometimes there is a very interesting study, a challenging perspective. For example, phosphate: everyone thinks that its recovery is important, plants are being built. However, what is recovered is often not real phosphate yet. You have gold, but it is still in the ore. In wastewater treatment it is actually mainly used for maintenance and cost reduction. There is not yet a good business case for the recovered material. You may think that it is in the public interest to recover materials, but that is a different matter. You must be honest about that. A better definition of the problem leads to a better solution. There will come a time when the phosphate mines are empty. So you may also decide to build up a strategic reserve by recovering materials. With cellulose the situation is comparable. Upgrading to a high quality is expensive and the fractions are too small for the industry.

Moreover, the perception that a product from waste water is ‘dirty’ does not have to be problematic. The market will know solutions for this. After all, we also eat mushrooms which are cultivated on horse manure. Lagging legislation is usually not the real bottleneck, it is actually the absence of a market. With each novelty you must therefore not only be enthusiastic, but also realistic and raise any intrinsic problems. They must not be suppressed, because otherwise people will not be enthusiastic about your idea. When a certain technology is inherently expensive, you must accept this and examine if there is a solution for this. And when there is no solution, it may not be the expected innovation. Because then you will not reach the phase of implementation.

From a technological viewpoint there are great options to improve wastewater treatment and recover valuable materials. And it is of great importance for society. However, it is also in particular necessary to establish a connection, to get the industry and the market around the table, and make the step towards implementation. We should discuss this with each other in November.’

Join us
Want to join the discussion at the AIWW Summit 2018 in Rotterdam? Please register for this landmark event.