Membrane processing of urine into drinking water (University of Ghent, Belgium)

  • KaiMikkel
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Membrane processing of urine into drinking water (University of Ghent, Belgium)

Looking around the forum, I wasn't able to locate any mention of the following from Belgium:

www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/health...m-urine-machine.html

"Belgian scientists create machine to turn urine into drinkable water"

Is anyone familiar with this technology or project?

Kai Mikkel Førlie

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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

It's the first time I've heard about it.

Isn't the first sentence funny:

A team of scientists at a Belgian university say they have created a machine that turns urine into drinkable water and fertilizer using solar energy, a technique which could be applied in rural areas and developing countries.

I mean, why do people always assume that their technology would be so easily applicable for developing countries...?
And: why would you bother to make drinking water from urine unless you're in a space shuttle or perhaps on a boat a long way from land?

The article says:

The urine is collected in a big tank, heated in a solar-powered boiler before passing through the membrane where the water is recovered and nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are separated.

Would be nice if someone could follow up on it and invite the researchers to tell us more about this?

Regards,
Elisabeth

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  • Karoliina
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

What comes to my mind immediately is that if this a reasonably cheap technology and the nutrients are recovered in a plant-available form, this could be the solution for mass events in developed countries as well. Imagine the public dry toilets that turn your pee into water and nutrients on-site, making the transport and reuse of the nurtients a lot cheaper and the water could be used on site. No more hauling human produced liquids to expensive processing plants! I would also be very interested in hearing more about this if possible!
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

I reached out to one of the researchers involved. Here's hoping he acquiesces to my request to join the forum and provide us all more information.

Kai Mikkel Førlie

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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water (University of Ghent, Belgium)

Hello all,

I'm just a new member of the SuSanA forum, and I've been around looking at what kind of work is being done. Very interesting indeed, and we are just a new player in this world. I'm sorry we didn't come here first, but the last few weeks have been very busy answering media requests and so on. About me: I am ir. Sebastiaan Derese, a PhD student in Bioscience engineering (environmental technology) at Ghent University since August 2013. Our team further consists of various MSc. students (who write their theses on our project) and my supervisor, prof. dr. ir. Arne R.D. Verliefde. Though this is the core, we have a lot of people involved for small tasks, and as such we have quite a bit of scientific and non-scientific input.

The project, which we like to call SATURN (Solar-Assisted Treatment of Urine with Recovery of Nutrients) is aimed at recovering the majority of fertilizer value in urine, but only through use of 'simple', energy-efficient and robust technology. The project was started in August 2013 when I received a personal grant to investigate a few techniques towards nutrient recovery from human urine. Since then, we've been (primarily) doing lab tests, which have been quite successful and led to a pilot trial at the Ghent Festival. There, we received a lot of media attention with the cross-over between the SATURN project and the Sewer To Brewer project, in which the goal is to use recovered water from wastewater into a beer (both as a statement - it can be done - as well as improving the trust in wastewater treatment and circular water cycles). Indeed: we were able to recover very high quality water directly from urine for beer production. More water is needed to start up a batch of 'urine beer', but that is out of the question here.

I cannot disclose too much of the science behind the SATURN project, unfortunately. We do have some partnerships running under NDA. What I can tell you is that we try and aim for selective nutrient recovery (N, P, K, S...) from urine (without inclusion of pathogens/pharmaceuticals) as well as high-quality water recovery with the only energy input being solar heat (so no PV panels). Due to the 'ease of operation' and modularity of the technique, it is possible to have both a 'high-tech' and 'low-tech' version, allowing this technique to be used stand-alone in festivals and in large buildings, as well as opening perspectives for developing countries. As you point out, Elisabeth, the situation there is infinitely more complex, which is why we're looking for grants to explore the possibilities, and start a project in which we start from scratch and design the system as such that it could work for rural communities. However, I do not doubt the fact that there will be people with a lot more field experience here (we do also have running projects in South Africa, so we're not complete idiots either), whom I'm very willing to exchange with. For us, the goal is to get to implementation of this technology in a broad context, if it is indeed a competitor/successor of existing technology. To do that, we need funding, partners and investors. The media attention helped quite a bit achieving this.

In any case, I welcome any questions, suggestions and remarks, and hope to disclose a bit more soon.

Please contact me and my supervisor through This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

All the best, good luck in your endeavours,
Sebastiaan
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water (University of Ghent, Belgium)

Dear Sebastiaan,

Thanks for the detailed description of your project, much appreciated!

I have a few questions:
You said:

I cannot disclose too much of the science behind the SATURN project, unfortunately. We do have some partnerships running under NDA.

Does the SATURN project (Solar-Assisted Treatment of Urine with Recovery of Nutrients) still have funding now or has the funding finished? You mentioned that funding started in 2013 but I didn't see further information on funding?
NDA means non-disclosure agreement? May I ask who the partners are, or at least what kind of partners?
I am trying to understand which private businesses would have an interest in this and why?

Could you tell us a bit more about your activities in South Africa? We have many projects and people from South Africa on this forum so perhaps it's possible to make some connections between people this way.

Thanks a lot.

Kind regards,
Elisabeth

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  • NMORY
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

Hi Karoliina,

I know this thread is a little older, but the main problem with onsite nutrient recovery are the energy requirements and time limitations along with strict laws in most developed areas that do not take into consideration the conversion process from black water to grey water (although urine isn't really black water).

This research project shot itself in the foot by promoting the end result being potable water. Furthermore, small particle size filters are quite costly and so is heating a large volume on an overcast day...

My team and I have started to put together a clearer portrait of needs along with barriers to adoption of in situ recovery. There is a good market for portable latrines, yet strong lobbying from a handful of sanitation providers curtail progress here in Canada at least. Regardless, we aim to have a functional full recovery urinal prototype by the end of 2018. We will not claim to produce potable water, but strive for conversion instead which could be evacuated into a nearby catch basin in cities or used to irrigate a nearby green space (if available) permit permitting.

If you want more info, let me know!
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

I think it also makes sense to try and understand why these sanitation provides (=municipal sanitation utilities?) are lobbying against such solutions.

While I agree that nutrient recovery is an important topic to work on, these utilities usually struggle with over-nutrition of waterways as their primary technical issues. Of course this is looking at the larger picture very much backwards as it is a result of the lack of nutrient recovery, but in the short term a understandable concern.

Thus being faced which demands to allow discharge to water ways under less stringent permits, and knowing that the public will first blame them if algae blooms etc come up, it is very much understandable that there is a strong lobby against allowing that.

They are probably fearing that portable urinals will be set up in night-life areas or other public places with a lot of day-time visitors and then (after a while, i.e. after the original well-meaning pioneers have been displaced by lower price competitors with less environmental concerns) those nutrients will end up in the water ways more or less unchecked.

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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

Yeah, I entirely agree. By lobbying I meant the few portable latrine providers (private sector). Although, the idea for us is to offer a product that simultaneously raises awareness through a reward system. Ostara has been making some good strides with retrofit tech on current wastewater treatment facilities in regards to phosphorus content. We are aiming for areas without a sewer network (or a very poor one) or that cannot be connected to one. Although we have received a few requests for domestic urinals from ancillary parts manufacturers which means a portion of the population is demanding some form of alternative to the current system.
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

Hi,

And many thanks for your answer! What you said about the difficulties of black water vs. grey water (or even better, potable water) is actually very interesting and I have to look into that a bit more and see what our legislation says here in Finland. Altough, I do not think it should be such a problem here, as we have actually have definition (plus base values for nutrients etc) for grey water so as long as the end product fits the limits, I do not see a problem. Now, marketing the leftover water as potable water is another thing, that might not go here either.

I have actually been trying to develop a model for event sanitation, where all nutrients (or at least most of them) would be caught from the toilet outputs in situ, so that the nutrients would be easier to transport and apply, than for example in urine form. I did a very interesting BIOUREA project together with Tampere University of Applied Sciences and the Finnish Environment Institute about using urine as fertilizer (see more: www.huussi.net/en/activities/on-going-projects/biourea/ ) and we found out that one of the issues about using urine is it's hight water content, which makes it very expensive to move around and apply. One of the findings of the projects was, that urine is a very good fertilizer but the volume needs to be smaller. We also came to the conclusion, that one place to start gathering these human produced nutrients (at leats here in Finland) would be different events, as changing the sanitation systems to separately collect urine might take a while still. Where as in events the system is already there, you just need to apply the right kind of toilets and make them cost efective (it is actually very expensive for the events here in Finland to get rid of the toilet outputs as very few treatment facilities will receive them nowadays. They have been very keen to see some sort of evironmentally friendly, cost efective solutions for the sanitation). The events here are also very envirnomentally consciouss and one of the biggest environmental issues in the events is sanitation and its envirnomental footprint. So delivering new technologies would interest the events alot.

We have also considered the need for power and this has been one of the issues for us. It also has to be quite fast, so that the nutrients can be collected during the event duration (many times only one day). We have been doing some experiments with struvite but the issue is, that the raw materials needed to make it are quite costly and the Nitrogen still ends up remaining mostly in the discharge (and it is the N that has the most value for farmers in Finland so we really need to find a way to get that as well). We have also tought about different filtration methods for the N, but these seem to be too expensive. So if you come up with something new, I am more than interested and wish you all the luck in the world! Let me know how your project goes!
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Re: Membrane processing of urine into drinking water

Hi Karoliina,

The parameters you are describing make sense. We are aiming to get a one day conversion of over 80% recovery efficiency for N. We are only focusing on urine at the moment due mainly to a lack of funding, yet urine is the most challenging issue with outdoor events due to high volume and low value.

Our first prototype will be a bench scale model that will serve the residential market, but after some trialing we hope to scale it.
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