Spinning Wastewater Into Gold: Imagine H2O’s 2012 Water Innovation Prize Winners

The Bilexys team, winners of the Water Innovation Prize for a process that harvests useful organic chemicals from wastewater. Photo: Courtesy Imagine H2O.


What if companies, farms, and other large water users started thinking about their effluent as a resource, instead of something that needed to be disposed of?

We’ve already written about water-stressed regions recovering H2O via “sewer mining.” But what if engineers could also recover useful organic compounds from wastewater, in addition to the aqua itself?

It would give people an incentive to reuse water and could help clean up pollution. It would also take us a step closer toward a Cradle to Cradle world.

A startup from Brisbane, Australia, Bilexys, is working on doing just that. Bilexys was just awarded the 2012 Water Innovation Prize from Imagine H2O, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs develop businesses in the water space.

Bilexys was awarded first place in the Pre-Revenue track, while another startup, New Sky Energy of Boulder, Colorado, won the prize’s Early Revenue track.

Nexus eWater of Canberra, Australia and Tusaar, Inc. (Lafayette, Colorado) were named runners up in the Pre-Revenue division.

The winners were chosen from a field of 50 entrants, by a judging panel that included leaders in the international water industry. Criteria included viability of technology and business model.

In a statement, one of the judges, Steven Kloos, said, “These early-stage companies view wastewater not as waste but as a resource to be economically mined for value such as upgraded water, energy, or products.” Kloos is also a partner at True North Venture Partners.

For this third annual award program, Imagine H2O chose to focus on wastewater, which the group defines as “water that has been contaminated by human contact, whether residential sewage, agricultural runoff, or industrial pollutants.” The group points out that roughly 90% of wastewater is released untreated around the world. To reuse wastewater, it must typically be passed through several steps, involving chemical and biological treatments, and requiring a considerable amount of energy.

According to the group, the global wastewater market is worth $200 billion annually across the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors.

Bilexys is pioneering alternative manufacturing processes for chemicals and plastics, based on bioelectrochemistry. The company’s scientists hope to use microorganisms to convert organic compounds in wastewater into useful chemicals like sodium hydroxide and hydrogen peroxide. Customers could then use the chemicals on site (eliminating the need to buy them), or potentially sell them.

Bilexys has estimated a potential payback period within two years.

The company has demonstrated a pilot plant at a pulp and paper company, turning their wastewater into food-grade sodium hydroxide.

Photo: Bilexys equipment
Bilexys equipment, turning wastewater into useful stuff. Photo: Imagine H2O

Bilexys spun off the Advanced Water Management Centre at The University of Queensland, and was incubated by UniQuest, one of Australia’s leading tech commercialization companies.

Tusaar is working on a unique media (filter) that removes heavy metals from wastewater. Building on technology licensed from the University of Colorado-Boulder, the team has been able to remove more than 40 different metals from polluted water.

The company hopes to help clean up coal fly ash ponds and other industrial pollutants, and says early users have seen cleanup costs reduced by 95%, leading to a payoff less than a year.

Nexus eWater converts a home’s gray water into near-potable water, while recycling the water’s energy for hot water heating. According to Imagine, “This decentralized solution allows homeowners to reduce water use and reduce their carbon footprint by internalizing water heating costs.”

New Sky Energy is working with a chemical process that produces CO2-containing compounds from wastewater. The company says customers can save money on chemicals they need while reducing their carbon footprint.

It’s perhaps no surprise that these new companies hail from Australia and the American West, two regions suffering form long-term water scarcity.

The Water Innovation Awards suggest that technological innovation is likely to be an important part of addressing the world’s water woes, though engineering advances must also be paired with smart consumption and conservation.


Brian Clark Howard is a writer and editor with NationalGeographic.com. He was formerly an editor at The Daily Green and E/The Environmental Magazine and has contributed to many publications, including TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, MailOnline.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN and elsewhere. His latest book, with Kevin Shea, is Build Your Own Small Wind Power System.