ACES: Water treatment made easy

10 Mar 2010 | News
With 20 years of experience behind him, ACES winner Nigel Brown believes companies today spend too much money – and energy – on water purification.

ParisTech President Cyrille van Effenterre (right) presents the 2009 ACES Fast Start Award to Nigel Brown, co-founder of Arvia Technology Ltd.

As a chemical engineer who has spent 20 years on treating waste water and water management, Nigel Brown believes companies today spend too much money – and energy – on water purification.

Current methods involve a high-energy process that in many cases uses toxic or hazardous compounds or generates other waste products that need to be disposed of. Brown is co-founder with Ted Roberts of Arvia, a company tackling the problem with a device they say enables water to be treated on site at room temperature, with no need to transport sludge.

A spin-out from the University of Manchester, UK, Arvia earned itself the Fast Start award at the ACES Awards in Paris last December for its efforts. In 2008 the Liverpool-based company received an £800,000 investment from UMIP, a fund managed by MPI Partners for spin-outs from five UK universities. In January 2009 it put in place former Tata Chemicals executive Martin Keighley as CEO, and the company has several trials of its product installed in the field. Brown serves as technology director at the start-up, while Roberts is Research Director, continuing to work at improving the technology in the research labs at University of Manchester.

Although the pace of development has been rapid since Arvia’s founding, the idea for the core technology goes back a bit farther. In the mid-90s, Brown, then an environmental consultant, and Roberts, an engineer with the University of Manchester School of Chemical Engineering, started a joint project to improve ways of purifying water. Government and university grants enabled them to pursue this research in the early part of the decade at the university, where they eventually developed a means for decontaminating organic pollutants.

Drawing out the pollutants

The duo’s idea was to add a highly conductive object to the water to first adsorb the contaminants – that is, to draw them to the surface of the object – and then to run an electric current through the water to regenerate or neutralise them into harmless gases and water. The most commonly used adsorbent is activated carbon, but Brown says they sought a substance that would be less energy-intensive and more easily disposed of. “Once you’ve loaded activated carbon with contaminants, it has to be regenerated off site via a high temperature process and then disposed of in landfills,” says Brown. “That’s an expensive, energy intensive process.”

The two developed a patented substance called Nyex, a non-porous, carbon-based material, which the company says requires far less energy than activated carbon to regenerate, uses little or no chemicals, and creates no sludge. This also enables adsorption and regeneration to take place continuously using one unit.

Peter Hillis, a water treatment expert with United Utilities, one of the UK’s largest water companies, sees what Arvia is trying to do as solving an essential problem in water purification. “A technology that can remove organic contaminants while producing no solid waste has always been a sort of holy grail of water treatment,” he says. As the cost of fresh water increases, the attraction of a procedure where no sludge has to be treated will also grow. The early-stage technology will initially be more suited to smaller scale applications, Hillis notes, but large water companies will have their eye on its development over the next decade.

Brown agrees that large water utilities are slow to move, and says that initial applications will focus on smaller companies that treat groundwater and industrial waste water. Arvia has in place demonstration units at a paper mill and at an airport to treat surface water. Meanwhile, the big challenge in 2010 is to get that all-important first sale.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up