Young, high-energy, casually clothed in sneakers and hoodie – that’s the modern cliché of a startup founder and a lot of people do it justice. Maybe that is why we straight away became aware of John and Richard at the Falling Walls Venture – as they do not conform to this cliché on first sight and thanks to their polite and British demeanour we soon got talking about their water treatment startup.
The next day, we met up with Richard and Michael Theodorou, the person who had put them forward to enter the Venture competition, so that they could tell us more about their startup Elentec.
WUNDERDING: How did Elentec come into being?
Richard Bostock: My brother John worked with a well-respected inventor scientist in the UK. They were talking about how to apply technology to solve problems on the planet and, as they had been working on using electrochemically generated silver and copper solutions for disinfection, decided to extend this to electrocoagulation which had been known about for 100 years. They believed that it had the potential to be expanded into industrial scale but that it needed further development to work efficiently and that it had to be seen as part of a system and not necessarily a complete solution. My brother picked this up and it became a mission that he pursued, initially with the scientist who has since passed away – a few years ago. Then my brother got involved with Bangor University, taking a recently qualified PhD student, who is now technical director, and found funding for some initial work. That provided the underpinning technology and they then started to develop pilot systems.
WUNDERDING: And when did you become involved in your brother’s project?
Richard Bostock: I got involved about 5 years ago as I felt the need to bring some of the research into the commercial world; that’s my background. So, we sat down as a threesome to discuss the work. Over the last two or three years, our work has developed into full scale commercial development and we’ve got a great team of people who we’re now employing; they are heavily committed and we pay them on a contract basis. We have a water treatment engineer who designed all the pipework, the pumps, the valves, the controls. We have a superb process control engineer, who was trained in one of the big chemical companies in the UK. He works on a freelance basis. And that’s where we are now.
WUNDERDING: And what is your current status?
Richard Bostock: We’ve got a full-scale demonstrator unit which has been used to treat the effluent from a disused mine in Wales and that’s the platform for ongoing mine remediation work which is a big problem – not just in Wales but basically throughout all of the developed world and even in some areas of emerging economies. Gold mining in Ghana – one of the Falling Walls lab delegates last year was working on how to solve the problem of artisanal gold mining which uses mercury to separate the gold in the processing. And they don’t dispose of the mercury in a safe way and so it’s contaminating land. Our technology removes mercury. You put a piece of this kit next to the artisan mine workings and it takes the mercury out. You can then recover it and reuse it, instead of just dumping it. Those are some examples of what we are doing with mine effluent.
Project at Frongoch. Snowdonia National Park
The area has been capped – underneath is a man-made lake used to hold the outflow from the old mine.
A lagoon which is used as a buffer. Elentec tap into it’s heavily contaminated water (containing about 400ppm of zinc).
Elentec’s system and a small group of visitors from the Welsh Government.
The clean stream into which Elentec discharges the treated water.
WUNDERDING: How does it work?
Richard Bostock: Water treatment to remove contaminants has relied on a process called coagulation. This is usually chemical treatment using ferric or aluminium based chemicals, where these chemicals cause coagulation of dissolved or other contaminants, to increase the size which enables them to settle out or be filtered out. The problem with the chemical methods is that they take up a lot of space, can be expensive and they are corrosive which requires significant infrastructure to cover health and safety issues. This means they are best suited to larger-scale centralised water treatment processes. However, you can’t then take this approach into remote sites and this is one reason why some waste water has never been treated.
WUNDERDING: And you have another solution?
Richard Bostock:Yes. Our process of electrocoagulation replaces the chemical coagulation process with the use of purpose designed electrode chambers. As the chemicals are usually ferric or aluminium based, we use steel or aluminium plates in arrays in the chamber. The contaminated water is pumped through the chamber where it and an electrical current is applied between the plates so that the plates are slowly corroded into the waste stream. At this stage, the mixing is carefully controlled so that coagulation occurs, and separation can be achieved between clean water and sludge. The water can then be “polished” to the standard required and the sludge, which is usually significantly less in quantity than that produced using chemicals, can be investigated for recovery or conversion into product if possible, or otherwise safe disposal.
One of the interesting things to emerge from our work is that others are seeing the benefit of what we’re doing and they are redesigning their separation and filtration processes to tie in with our work. A traditional lamellar separation unit would be quite big. We are investigating the use of one which has a smaller diameter, using circular plates and is small enough to sit in a standard 20 foot container, along with our 10 cubic metre per hour system. This is being developed so that portable units can be produced and is the sort of trigger which will make small footprint units feasible. Additionally, it should be possible to power them using renewable resources, making the technology suitable for remote locations.
WUNDERDING: What is the game-changing step with your technology?
Richard Bostock:So, the big step change would be to take waste water that could require a full-scale water treatment plant with significant space, high power consumption and major infrastructure – and to then put one of our modules in a large van or container and run it off a solar panel, wind turbine or mini-hydro. Using modern electronics and communications, it is becoming easier to control the process by monitoring pH, flow rates, energy and bring more precision to the process. And the more trials we run, the more we understand by developing a database so that we can assess treatment options for different waste streams.
WUNDERDING: Which materials can be filtered this way?
Richard Bostock: The process works very well on any metal or heavy metals – mercury, arsenic, lead as well as zinc, nickel or cadmium and all of those materials have been tested. The work that we do with Harper Adams University is focusing on phosphates which are a particular problem. We have a lot of experience of removing phosphate – this includes work on treated sewage and also paint waste from car plants. It also works well on solids removal. Electrocoagulation works well across a range of contaminants, but some, including recalcitrant COD, endocrine disrupting chemicals require further treatment, for which Elentec is developing a UV base oxidation system
WUNDERDING: What is the situation with regards to competitors?
Richard Bostock: We do have competitors – although there aren’t that many in the UK, there are a number of different approaches in the USA. For example, monopolar systems are used quite commonly in America, which works but which we believe is not as efficient as a bipolar system, either in terms of energy use or control. The R&D team have been looking at what other people do and we’ve actually gone and helped some of them as part of the research process because we prefer to be reasonably open about these things. But I think that the two guys who have driven the research are just that way – very curious and perfectionist. So, if it’s not working, the way they want it to, they go back and do it again, go back and do it again. Some might say that’s slowed down the commercial side but I think the upside of that is that we have developed a lot of experience and data which will stand us in good stead now. Part of our job is to now exploit that because we now have the capacity. We are just about to start to build what will be the first full scale production model which will be portable and mobile, as well as modular, and which will do 10 cubic metres an hour and be transportable by lorry, trailer or van.
WUNDERDING: What is your business model?
Richard Bostock: It depends on who we are talking to and what they want. Some organisations regard the waste that they produce as a nuisance and just want to focus on their core business. We are quite happy to go to them and say that, we’ll put some equipment here and just charge a per cubic metre rate, or a minimum monthly charge and we will just look after the kit. It’s essentially a lease model. But some finance directors don’t want that – they want to have control over their assets, they have certain expenditure rules within the company. In those cases we will sell the treatment unit but because of the nature of the process, we would always supply replacement electrode cells. This works because we designed a “plug and play” cartridge/cell system, so once a month we go in and change the cartridge/cell on a prearranged basis as we can calculate the corrosion rate of the electrode plates for any particular use. Also, we don’t have one cartridge per system – the current systems have got three: there’s one running, one ready to run, and one is a backup in case there’s a problem with one. We can design systems for four, five, six, ten units and the possibility to run several in tandem, so that we can deal with changing or higher flows. So, the replacement of the cartridges creates the second strand of the business, because there is a fee. It’s like the printer cartridge industry and it gives us the opportunity to send an engineer though we could train staff on site if customers wanted that.
WUNDERDING: Michael, you put Elentec forward to enter the Falling Walls Venture competition. How are you and Harper Adams University connected to Elentec?
Michael Theodorou: I hold the chair of “anaerobic digestion and fermentation technology” at Harper Adams University. My university is relatively small but exceptionally well focused on agriculture and the food chain. We teach and conduct research on environmental and economic aspects of agriculture, precision agriculture and the pre- and- post farm gate food chain. Our mandate is to train the next cohort of farm and land managers including those involved in the food industry. In other words, succession planning for when the current cohort retires.
In my area of research, I concern myself with anaerobic digestion and the recovery of the energy from waste, particularly in relation to the circular economy. My research attempts to add value to what others may consider as waste products.
My involvement with Elentec came about through a research proposal I submitted to the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK. The proposal, which is now funded, takes a novel approach to anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digestion is a process whereby biogas for energy and digestate for soil remediation is generated from the fermentation of waste or purposely grown biomass. There is a substantial body of science underpinning the process of anaerobic digestion. However, I wanted to take an alternative position to consider anaerobic digestion not for the generation of energy from waste but as a water treatment process. In my approach, I wanted to recover portable water from the anaerobic digestion process. In so doing, we obtain energy in the form of biogas but instead of digestate, is it possible to recover chemicals from digestate that were originally dug up from the ground and used in the food chain as fertilizer? Is it possible to valorise digestate by mining for recyclable fertiliser chemicals. In constructing this project, I was looking for technologies that could be used to recover chemicals from digestate. Elentec, because of their electrocoagulation methodology, was one of the companies that I contacted. It appeared to me that electrocoagulation was an exceptionally good technology for dropping out phosphates (principle component of P, K and N artificial fertilizer) from digestate. The electrocoagulation process renders soluble phosphates in digestate slurries insoluble and they precipitate out of solution and can be collect as a phosphate enriched sludge. The Elentec technology is not as good at dropping out nitrogen compounds but we do have other approaches to recover nitrogen.
WUNDERDING: What are the main opportunities for Elentec in agriculture?
Michael Theodorou: Many farms are too small for costly, large scale anaerobic digestion installations. However, in the dairying sector many farms store effluent from the farmyard in slurry tanks. These effluents are rich in phosphate and electrocoagulation could be used to treat slurries and recover valuable chemicals from farms that do not have anaerobic digestion facilities.
WUNDERDING: How can startups and organisations such as Elentec cooperate with Harper Adams University?
Michael Theodorou: Universities in the UK offer a range of opportunity to bring industry and academia together. Several small grant and vouches schemes are available to start-ups and SME’s, for example, those operated by Innovate UK and the research councils, to enable companies to interact and get work done at a university. For longer-term interaction, it is possible for the company to seconding a member of their staff for part or full time work in the relevant research group at the university. This is what Elentec have done with their most recent recruit; my university were involved in the selection and interview process and the selected appointee now works fulltime in my laboratory. Elentec contributes an agreed university bench-fee and abides by various rules and regulations with regards to insurance and health and safety and the secondee can work officially on the university campus.
It is also possible to team up with industrial organisation such as Elentec in putting research proposals together, for example for European Union 20:20 or Innovate UK funding. If grants are awarded, these schemes allow SMEs and academic organisations to come together. Both organisations will take funding from the grant awarding body although for some schemes the industrial partner must provide some of the eligible costs for the work to be undertaken.
The research councils in the UK also provide collaborating opportunities industrial companies. Usually, the industrial company does not receive funding from the research council and may need to provide funding or contributions in kind work undertaken by the university. As mentioned previously, Elentec are involved in my research council grant that is looking at phosphate recovery. They are a partner on the grant. They don’t receive funding from it but they provide my laboratory with equipment and knowhow.
WUNDERDING: What are the future plans for the cooperation with Elentec?
Michael Theodorou: I will need to look for additional funding for a programme of work that will focus on scale-up of our exiting activities and include effluent clean-up for smaller farms. It should be possible to exploit what has been achieved in the laboratory and apply it to larger scale farm-based operations. My university has significant farm-based facilities – not just for dairy but also for pigs, poultry, sheep and even aquaculture. All of these facilities have effluent-streams. Aquaculture presents another real opportunity for Elentec. Fish production in tanks on land is a developing technology and will required water clean-up and phosphate recovery. So that’s another area that I am hoping to develop with Elentec. Elentec have their own research that looking at the mining effluent. Some of the methodologies that they will use are being optimised at Harper Adams University with a member of Elentec staff now seconded to my laboratory.
WUNDERDING: Thank you very much Richard and Mike!