Going With the Flow: Local companies find innovation in wastewater treatment

Vancouver-based Axine Water Technologies is a leader in B.C.'s burgeoning wastewater treatment industry

Credit: Courtesy of Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies

Ostara engineers monitor their nutrient recovery process

B.C. is quietly becoming an incubator for wastewater treatment technology

Axine Water Technologies Inc.‘s first client doesn’t want anyone to know its dirty secret. Vancouver-based Axine won’t give many details about the company, except that the water used at its electronics plant in San Jose, California, is so contaminated with solvents that it couldn’t be treated onsite. So each year hundreds of tanker trucks have been driving the water to a remote facility where, in a real but impossible-sounding process, it’s incinerated.

This isn’t a unique situation. Axine estimates that North American industrial businesses spend up to $10 billion a year treating and disposing of polluted water. With an eye on that market, the company developed a treatment system that uses an electrochemical reaction to pull chemicals out of water by breaking them up into elemental form: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, et cetera. All that’s left is clean water and trace amounts of inert gases.

Cleantech Group, a U.S.-based advocate for the clean technology industry, says privately owned Axine gathered $20 million, mostly through venture fundraising, to get its technology to commercial scale. The company installed its novel water treatment system at the California factory last June, eliminating the cost and risk of trucking and incinerating the water.

Axine president and CEO Jonathan Rhone says he expects to install eight to 10 more treatment systems across the U.S. this year and double that number in 2019: “We’re now heading toward our goal of becoming one of the most successful cleantech companies in the world.”

Five-year-old Axine is part of the small but growing wastewater treatment segment within B.C.’s booming cleantech sector. A 2016 report for the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance found that the province’s industry, which includes recycling, renewable energy, green transportation and wastewater, grew 25 percent between 2011 and 2016, to $6 billion in equity. The number of B.C.-based companies increased by 35 percent during that time, to 273. Seven of them made this year’s Global Cleantech 100, Cleantech Group’s list of the most innovative and promising players worldwide.

It all adds up to huge opportunities in the wastewater industry, and B.C. is well positioned to incubate niche businesses. “Vancouver has evolved as a hotbed for cleantech,” says Rhone, who also chairs the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance. “Why? The environment is part of our natural ethos, we have phenomenal entrepreneurs, an engineering talent base, and pioneering companies like Ballard and Westport are based here.”

Axine’s technology was the brainchild of a former Ballard Power Systems Inc. engineer. The company, which developed and tested its prototypes at UBC, is now working with electrochemical engineers at UVic on a more efficient system.

Vancouver’s other wastewater treatment outfits include Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, a company commercializing a UBC-developed technology to extract phosphorous from sewage and turn it into fertilizer; Saltworks Technologies, which focuses on removing salts from industrial waste; and BQE Water, a mining waste specialist.

They all share a realization that reducing liability is just as valuable as increasing assets, says Troy Vassos, an adjunct professor of engineering at UBC and a consultant on wastewater treatment. By solving water headaches in a flexible and customizable way, Vassos adds, they offer an easy-to-adopt product that big competitors can’t match.

All four companies build modular systems. Axine runs its treatment plants as a service, reducing risk for customers. And because each mine is unique, BQE custom-designs its plants to the specific water flows and treatment needs of the site.

Government regulation and enforcement play a role in any cleantech firm’s success, Vassos notes. Consider BQE’s dramatic shift over the past four years. For the first 15 years of operation, the company’s clients were all international, despite its base in Vancouver, Canada’s mining capital. Then in 2014 a tailings pond failed at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C., spilling contaminated water into Quesnel Lake. Questionable engineering and lax enforcement of government regulations took most of the blame.

“Mount Polley dramatically changed how the mining industry and government looked at water,” says David Kratochvil, president and CEO of BQE. “B.C. went from little enforcement to one of the strictest regimes in the world.”

Today 50 percent of BQE’s projects are at B.C. mines. Slow adoption at home is familiar to Axine’s Rhone. “Disruptive and innovative technology is hard to launch into Canada,” he says. “Instead, we have to prove our technology in international markets first. I think we’ll be in four or five countries before we launch in Canada. It’s definitely an impediment to scale-up and growth of cleantech in Canada.”

Rhone and others in the industry would like to see more leadership from governments at all levels. “We have so much potential in the cleantech and wastewater industries in B.C.,” he says. “But we can’t build these sectors behind one company. We need government to create a focal point, and then the industry can really take off.”