There’s something in the water — how nanotech sensors, AI and other digital tools can keep our supply safe | The Star
The numbers are stark: Around the world, an estimated 785 million people do not have access to clean drinking water and a billion more live in water-stressed areas. The growing climate crisis is magnifying the threat to water supplies — arid regions are becoming drier, and flooding is becoming more frequent in water-rich areas. And the energy-intensive treatment of wastewater only compounds the issue, accounting for an estimated three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. That’s more GHGs than Canada emits annually.
In other words, communities need better — and smarter — ways to treat and manage water resources. The digital revolution, however, is starting to trickle into the world’s water treatment industry.
A strong lineup of Canadian clean-technology firms are commercializing technologies based on digital sensors and artificial intelligence, which let utilities and industry optimize their water-treatment performance at lower costs and with reduced energy consumption. These clean-tech firms, however, must overcome the innate caution of an industry that is driven by the twin imperatives of regulatory compliance and avoidance of errors that can cause human illness and environmental damage.
“There is a real opportunity for Canada and for the private sector in Canada to step up — not just within Canada but also from an export perspective to help achieve U.N. sustainability goals,” says Dr. Corinne Schuster-Wallace, a water expert and geology professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “There are lots and lots of places where innovation can occur and is occurring in drinking water and wastewater treatment.”
Ontario leads in water innovation
Digital solutions offer a way for communities to upgrade their operations without massive capital expenditures. Across the country, companies that specialize in sensors, data collection, analytics and robotics are growing rapidly, looking to compete in the $1-trillion global marketplace for water technology.
Canada has a strong history of successful water-technology companies to build on, including Oakville-based Zenon, which pioneered efficient filtration technology in the 1980s and ’90s and is now owned by French giant Suez. Ontario alone counts 900 water-industry companies including 300 early-stage technology developers. The Invest Ontario agency calculates that $14 billion is spent annually on industrial, university-based and private-sector research.
Using sensors to fine-tune operations
The wastewater treatment sector is ripe for innovation, especially information technology that lets them improve performance without making big capital investments, says Patrick Kiely, CEO of Sentry Water Technologies. “From a pure energy perspective, these facilities aren’t being operated in any sort of efficient manner at all,” he says. “There is very limited optimization in place.”
The company uses sensors that combine biological compounds and digital technology to track pollutants in wastewater. This allows treatment plants to finely tune operations to hourly conditions, which is both more energy efficient and reduces the need for costly chemicals. In Montague, P.E.I., for example, a Sentry alarm system provides a signal when the local brewery discharges its wastewater into the municipal system, permitting plant managers to adjust their treatment operations.