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How Circular-Economy Approaches to Wastewater Can Cut Costs, Emissions, Water Use

cambrian-innovationBear Republic Brewing Company was up against environmental and operational challenges common to many food and beverage companies. The Cloverdale, California-based brewery faced city-imposed water supply and wastewater discharge limits. If it wanted to proceed with its expansion plan, it would have to find an onsite wastewater treatment system that reduced the load on the city’s aging and overworked water treatment infrastructure.

To address both these issues, Bear Republic turned to biotechnology firm Cambrian Innovation and its EcoVolt technology, which allows industrial users to treat wastewater while generating clean energy and clean water for reuse. The company first purchased the EcoVolt Reactor in 2014. It spent the next two years working with Cambrian and the city to obtain the necessary permits and evaluations and get the onsite system approved and operational.

Earlier this year the EcoVolt came online and it is helping the brewery reduce its wastewater treatment costs and electricity bills. After four months of operation, it currently supports Bear Republic’s annual production of 82,000 barrels per year, treating 100 percent of their wastewater onsite.

Matthew Silver, founder and CEO of Cambrian Innovation, won’t disclose the EcoVolt system’s cost, but he says its customers typically see a payback in two to five years and that the systems generally save food and beverage producers upwards of a million dollars annually.

“In Bear Republic’s case, this system helped them get their required permitting for an expansion of the brewery,” Silver said in an interview. “The payback is very short for them because it allowed them to brew more beer. The city of Cloverdale has a wastewater treatment plant that was completely overloaded and that’s something we’re seeing across the country: infrastructure that hasn’t been improved and is overloaded.”

As water supply and infrastructure challenges plague communities and corporations across the US, treating and reusing industrial wastewater or converting it to clean energy is becoming an increasingly attractive option — especially to breweries, which require large quantities of water to make their products and produce difficult-to-treat wastewater in the process.

In Hawaii, Kona Brewing Co.’s new high-efficiency brewery includes an on-site resource recovery center, built by PurposeEnergy, that will allow it to recycle its wastewater and other brewing byproducts to produce electricity, heat and clean water. In an earlier interview Kona Brewing’s Sandi Shriver, said the resource recovery center will help it reduce its water usage to less than half what typical craft breweries use. “As a bonus, we can generate 30 percent of the energy needs from burning the biogas byproduct,” she said.

And in California, Seismic Brewing Company and Lagunitas Brewing Company have reduced their water footprint and water bills after installing Cambrian water treatment systems that convert spent brewing water into reusable water.

Silver says the EcoVolt is the world’s first industrial-scale, bioelectrically enhanced wastewater treatment system.

Bear Republic’s EcoVolt system is comprised of one headworks unit controlling two anaerobic EcoVolt Reactors. It uses a process called “electromethanogensis,” in which electrically active eliminate up to 90 percent of the wastewater’s biological oxygen demand (BOD). This allows customers to meet local discharge standards and generate renewable biogas.

A combined heat and power turbine converts the methane into nearly 600,000 kWh of renewable electricity and 3,000 therms of renewable heat per year. This reduces Bear Republic’s reliance on natural gas and will eliminate thousands of metric tons of CO2 annually.

“It is the only system on the market that I know of that extracts resources from wastewater and is also modular and road-shippable,” Silver said. “We put in place 95 kilowatts of cogeneration capacity at Bear Republic and they have the ability to add units when they want. We’ve shown it has the ability to deal with extremely hoppy brewery wastewater, which is notoriously difficult to treat, and it’s shown to be the lowest-cost solution with the highest sustainability features.”

Bear Republic isn’t currently reusing any of the treated water, but it has the option to do so in the future for several non-potable uses such as tank washing, irrigation and cooling tower operations. At Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma, for example, the EcoVolt system produces 80,000 gallons of recycled water per day.

In another novel wastewater reuse development, University of Colorado Boulder engineers have developed a process that converts brewery wastewater into materials needed to make energy storage cells.

It uses a biological organism cultivated in brewery wastewater to create the carbon-based materials used in energy storage.

This could reduce costs and improve environmental sustainability for both industries, the researchers say. If the process were applied on a large scale, breweries could potentially reduce their wastewater treatment costs while manufacturers would gain access to a cost-effective means of creating renewable fuel cell technologies.

Circular-economy approaches to wastewater treatment? We’ll drink to that.

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