Boosting Brazil’s water innovation ecosystem

Panoramic view of the Furnas canyon. Capitólio City, State of Minas Gerais, Brazil. © iStock / GERSON FORTES

Whether solutions are highly innovative or not, they get connected to end needs through an ecosystem of actors, all of whom need to play their part. Brazilian wastewater institute INCT Sustainable STPs is evolving its role to strengthen the country’s innovation ecosystem.

Technological innovations have their part to play in meeting water-related needs. Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology on Sustainable Sewage Treatment Plants (INCT Sustainable STPs), led by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), has been developing a series of three-phase separators for use in upflow anaerobic sludge blanket (UASB) reactors for sewage treatment. These will help improve the capture of biogas and deal with problems related to scum and odour.

The country has more than 1000 UASB plants, more than any other when it comes to treatment of sewage. “Scum accumulation and removal is one of the biggest problems in anaerobic reactors in Brazil,” says Professor Carlos Chernicharo, of the UFMG, which hosts the institute. So, the new design, drawing on more than 20 years of expertise, has the potential to make a real contribution to progress.

But the technology itself is just part of the story.

For a start, the separator is now set to be commercialised through a three-way collaboration between the institute, an industrial partner, and wastewater utilities. The institute has drawn on its research and development expertise, which includes familiarity with patenting, but has connected this with the insights of a commercial enterprise and end users.

The partners have been working on the idea for the past two years. In January 2021, they reached agreement on moving forward to begin manufacture.

The sewage gap

The opportunity to which this technology offering responds reveals yet more about the needs of Brazil’s water sector around innovation.

The country has invested in its sewage infrastructure. In particular, sanitation was a major beneficiary of a large national investment programme between 2007 and 2015.

“Most of the money for this programme was for construction, but not for good-quality preliminary studies, design and training,” says Chernicharo. “The overall result was that new plants were implemented, but almost all under the conventional linear economy thinking,” he adds, so they did not incorporate circular approaches, such as the recovery and use of biogas, to any great extent, or with sludge being disposed of in landfill.

On the one hand, this has left a gap for technology to capitalise on the biogas opportunity. At the same time, biogas collection installations have been built in treatment plants, but each installation is designed from scratch. “Every new plant demands a new design, so they are designing things that do not need to be designed again,” says Chernicharo. The new separator offers a standardised approach, and one utility in the country already anticipates adopting it for new installations.

In fact, the gap left following the investment push was much larger; it prompted the creation of the institute itself.

The institute was created in 2017. Its aim is to bring about a paradigm shift in sewage treatment in Brazil with a focus on closing cycles. UASB technology is at the heart of this, coupled with biogas production and recovery. The central concept combines sanitisation of sludge, supply of local communities with biogas for cooking, and polishing of treated water so that it is safe for reuse in applications such as crop irrigation.

The activities the institute has pursued also highlight the types of features that need to be nurtured in a functioning ecosystem able to achieve innovation on the ground.

For example, one of the early activities has been to prepare and publish technical notes covering different aspects of wastewater management. The goal here has been to unlock the information held within academia and to work with staff from the sanitation companies to prepare the notes and present the information in a way that makes it practical for use.

“We left our comfort zone in order to be able to invite them to write these notes together,” says colleague Thiago Bressani-Ribeiro. “They were based on science and practice, but the language was easy to understand, aimed at the operator level.” The institute has also worked with regulators, especially on the tasks of developing new regulations or revisiting regulations that have faced problems with implementation. According to another colleague, Professor Cesar Mota, it has worked, for example, on a state of Minas Gerais law on reuse of water after sewage treatment. The institute also led a national effort with ABES, the Brazilian Sanitary Engineering Association, on a federal law covering the use of biosolids in agriculture.

Mota describes these as “success stories”. They both involved bringing together the relevant stakeholders, and examining the regulations in detail and proposals for revision, with the sewage sludge work involving hosting an international workshop.

Next steps

The institute has already demonstrated value to the water sector in Brazil. This was reinforced recently when it was able to respond rapidly to the COVID-19 pandemic and take a lead on research on the use of wastewater surveillance.

It is now entering its next phase. The institute was set up with initial funding from the Brazilian national research council (CNPq), the Brazilian coordination for the improvement of higher education personnel (CAPES), and the Minas Gerais state agency for research and development (FAPEMIG).

“In broad terms, the institute was created as a centre of excellence, with academic and industry partners,” says Mota. “We are now moving towards a second cycle, and we are exploring industry partnerships.”

“We can say the institute is now very well known around Brazil,” adds Chernicharo. “We are constructing key, and strong and durable, partnerships to start this second cycle… we have to develop a strategic view for the next five years for exactly where we can go.”

With these partnerships expected to include those with major water and wastewater utilities, the moves can put the institute firmly at the heart of the country’s future innovation ecosystem. •

By Keith Hayward

Carlos Chernicharo, Cesar Mota and Thiago Bressani-Ribeiro are members of the board of directors for the next phase of the INCT Sustainable STPs.

See: http://etes-sustentaveis.org/en/home-2/