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Innovative And Emerging Water Treatment Technologies For The 21st Century


Tomorrow is here. Water technology has propelled us to new heights of achievement as well as excess. And while our world isn’t quite a dystopian nightmare where AI machines seek to exterminate humanity, a more fundamental threat to our survival looms.

Water. Quality drinking water, specifically.

Finding it, accessing it, treating it, transporting it, dispensing it, and conserving it safely has been one of humanity’s greatest challenges since the dawn of our species. And for a growing number of people in the 21st century here and abroad, the need to treat contaminated water is real.

You may not be concerned about coliform bacteria in your tap water. But if you lived on a ranch in some parts of Texas, or operate a salon in Los Angeles, you’d realize contaminated water is a daily concern for others.

Municipalities, government services, and businesses that rely on water treatment technology to serve millions need solutions. Thanks to new innovations in many aspects of water treatment, however, the future of the water industry is certainly hopeful.

5 Innovative Trends Emerging In Water Treatment Technology

Unless you’ve actually experienced the effects of contaminated water, or struggled with the effects of hard water, water treatment technology isn’t something the average consumer thinks about. You turn on your tap and expect the water to be clean and safe. After all, that’s why we pay taxes, right?

The reality, however, is that municipalities and the federal government are finding it difficult to meet the growing demand for clean, drinkable water. Across the US, contamination levels exceed the recommended EPA requirements for safe drinking water in many municipalities [1]. The offenders are rarely held accountable. Milwaukee, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Brady, are some of the worst offenders for lead contamination, but there are others [2].

1. Membrane Technology

1. Membrane Technology

Membrane filters are widely used throughout the water industry. They can be found in water treatment appliances like whole-house RO water filtration systems, as well as city water treatment facilities and businesses. Their pores can be smaller than the width of a hair, trapping most of the harmful microscopic bacteria found in contaminated water.

Scientists are testing new types of membranes to improve efficiency and reduce the cost, since membranes need to be replaced. Ceramic membranes, for example, have proven extremely efficient at desalinating water. Such an innovation would potentially reduce the cost of desalinating water for coastal cities facing a short supply of accessible freshwater.

Recent developments have demonstrated a possible reduction in cost from $1 per cubic feet to as low as $0.50/cubic feet over five years using ceramic membranes [3]. Ceramic membranes also promise greater longevity over conventional ones, thus reducing the frequency of filter changes.

2. Wastewater Treatment Technology Innovation

If we can’t reduce the amount of wastewater we produce, we can at least find ways to treat and reuse it. Wastewater treatment typically involves the application of chemicals as well as multi-stage reverse osmosis, but the facilities needed are extremely large.

Currently 844 million people globally lack access to clean drinking water [4]. It’s estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages, displacing millions [5]. Manufacturing chemicals, wastewater, household waste, and erratic weather patterns have combined in our era to create a complex web of challenges for today’s giant, fast paced metropolises.

Plans for more compact wastewater treatment facilities rest heavily on new and emerging water treatment technologies that require less space. New methods of wastewater treatment can be implemented in crowded urban environments where space is limited and costly.

One new method transforms wastewater into an energy resource. Activated sludge process is used most frequently to remove biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) from wastewater. Modular hybrid activated sludge digesters, for example, remove nutrients from water that can then be used as fertilizer. This water treatment technology also reduces the energy required to treat the water by up to 50%.

3. Nanotechnology

Throughout the history of our species, contaminated water is intimately linked to sudden outbreaks of illness and disease. 88% of the deaths caused by diarrhea globally is directly linked to unsafe drinking water [6].

Thanks to researchers in India, it’s now possible to use nanotechnology in water treatment. Composite nanoparticles that emit silver ions can be used to remove harmful microbes and bacteria such as E. coli. Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology believe this innovation could soon make ‘microbially safe water’ available to millions for only $2.50/year (USD).

Simply put, nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and altering matter on an atomic and molecular scale – or 100 nanometers in width [7]. Nanotechnology also applies to devices and tools that may be microscopic themselves.

By developing more varieties of nanoparticles for treating different types of contaminants, water treatment could become more affordable and more widely accessible for households and municipalities alike.

4. SMART Monitoring Technology

smart water technology

If you’re already familiar with Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, it should be easy to appreciate the benefits of Smart monitoring technology. Now, as we enter a new era of civilization, Smart technology offers water treatment facilities a new way to be proactive rather than responsive to production and quality control issues.

Smart, short for “Self-Monitoring Analysis And Reporting Technology”, was a technology initially used to make hard drives more efficient. The same technology once used to monitor, analyze and diagnose the health of your drive has been expanded to countless other applications.

So how exactly can Smart monitoring improve water treatment?

According to a private study by the LA Times, traces of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl, the two most common chemicals, were found in 86 public water systems serving as many as 9 million Californians [8]. Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernadino County, Orange and Glendale were among them.

That’s a lot of people to service. Leak detection, automated testing, 24 hour monitoring, and real-time analysis can all be implemented and accessed across a vast network through Smart technology. Then there’s the problem of water loss. A 2013 study of 246 water utilities across the US revealed a loss of 130.1 billion gallons of water through system leaks [9]. Smart monitoring can detect these leaks quicker, improving the response time and reducing the loss.

5. Multi-stage Filtration Water Treatment

Here in the US, the need for affordable and sustainable water treatment for communities is more urgent than we realize for some. Multi-stage filtration, however, can already be found in many water filtration systems for residential use.

Water supplies close to regions of intense agriculture, heavy rains, mining, manufacturing, and ranching often require a comprehensive filtration system for removing a wide range of contaminants, from industrial pesticides to lead from corroded pipes.

Multi-stage filtration offers municipalities and households a less costly way to treat a wide range of contaminants. This relatively new method of water treatment combines coarse gravel pre-filtration and slow sand filtration to treat extremely high levels of contamination. A variety of membrane filters can also be integrated as needed to treat an extensive range of chemicals, toxins, bacteria, microbes, and even certain types of cysts [10].

More extensive, they’re also less costly to operate when implemented by municipalities. Significantly less wastewater than the RO method is also achieved.

Other Emerging Water Treatment Technologies

Globally, the shortage of freshwater may be facing a state of crisis. Compounded by high population growth and mass migrations, local water supplies can quickly and suddenly become contaminated by human waste, bacteria, and even toxic chemicals.

The EPA released an updated, in-depth 188 page study of emerging trends in new wastewater treatment technologies, assessing the viability and progress of a wide range of technologies in development [11].

First released in March 2013, the EPA’s assessment highlighted many promising sectors. Here are some other technologies still being explored today by researchers, engineers, and scientists across the country:

  • Alternative Disinfectants
  • Ammonia Recovery
  • Blue CAT
  • Membrane Biofilm Reactor
  • Multi-Stage Activated Biological Process
  • Deep Shaft Activate Sludge (VERTREAT)
  • Compressible Media Filtration
  • Blue PRO Reactive Media Filtration

Final Thoughts

Climate change. Industrial pollution. Household waste. Our world’s dwindling supply of freshwater is constantly threatened by contamination. The cost of treating water is rising as demand increases and supply wanes.

Households and businesses alike need sustainable and affordable solutions. Better, more efficient ways to treat water can help us make better use of the limited freshwater we do have. More importantly, these advances in water technology can quickly make clean drinking water more widely accessible.

[1] Drinking Water Contaminants – Standards and Regulations (EPA)
[2] These US Cities Are Dealing With the Worst Drinking Water Problems Nationwide (VICE Magazine)
[3] Inorganic Ceramic Ultrafiltration Membrane Market To Witness Double Digit CAGR Of 10.60% By 2026 (MarketWatch)
[4] Water Scarcity (WWF)
[5] Water Scarcity (WWF)
[6] Global WASH Fast Facts (Center For Disease Control And Prevention)
[7] What is nanotechnology? (How Stuff Works)
[8] California finds widespread water contamination of ‘forever chemicals’ (LA Times)
[9] The State of Water Loss Control In Drinking Water Utilities (American Water Works Association)
[10] Bacteria & Virus Issues (Water Quality Association)
[11] Emerging Technologies For Wastewater Treatment And In-Plant Wet Weather Management (EPA)

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