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Instead of “flushing away” what most people view as unwanted solid waste, two former Rochester Institute of Technology roommates have reunited to come up with a way to make that waste save money for municipalities and businesses.
Founder Terry Wright and CEO Greg Westbrook, who graduated in civil engineering technology from RIT in 1981, created ClearCove Systems in 2013 and are based at RIT’s Venture Creations business incubator. They have patented a process that they believe will revolutionize the way wastewater is treated, while creating energy for treatment plants to use.
There has been a lot of interest in their idea, from municipalities, food processors, breweries and theme parks that use water treatment systems. ClearCove has raised more than $1.5 million from investors that believe in the company’s potential, and has been promised $300,000 from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) which conducted their own research to make sure ClearCove’s claims were accurate.
Several successful prototypes have been tested in communities across the state, near Albany, Ithaca and Rochester.
Most of the country’s water treatment plants were built some 40 years ago, following the Clean Water Act of 1972. Very little has been done to update the inefficient process to clean the water, Wright and Westbrook said.
“I knew there was a better way to do this,” said Wright, who has designed treatment plants for years.
Traditionally, water treatment plants process the raw sewage that flows into the plant, mixing it with oxygen which helps spread the bacteria that eat the organic matter in the water and convert it to sludge. The sludge is removed and chlorine is added to the water, which is then returned to the environment in a lake or stream.
With ClearCove’s process, the incoming wastewater is immediately filtered with a 50-micron (.05mm) screen. About 80 percent of the sediment is removed and the remaining water is then treated. The ClearCove process typically allows a treatment plant to reduce energy consumption by 65 percent. The remaining solid material—which is often now hauled to a landfill—could produce three times more potential energy to be used for methane biogas than sludge from a conventional system. The biogas could be used by the treatment plant to produce heat and electricity. Adding food waste would add to the potential energy.
“We know we have energy inside the sewer pipe,” Westbrook says. “We’re taking that caloric value and now spending money to make it dirt. We pay to throw it away. The industry has been doing the same thing ever since and has not been thinking out of the box.”
Cleaning wastewater is a $28 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. It’s an industry the American Society of Civil Engineers has given a “D” to regarding current investment for improvements.
ClearCove hopes the recent trend of going green and sustainability will help them with their pitch to have municipalities convert their water treatment process and in return, save money as well. Their system can easily be retrofitted to treatment plants because the existing infrastructure would still be used. And the potential is great in Third World countries building new treatment plants.
“We can see a day when wastewater can be an asset, not a liability,” Westbrook says.
About Venture Creations
RIT’s Venture Creations incubator is where young companies can advance their concepts to become profitable, viable businesses and use resources such as coaching, networking and connections to potential investors. It also is home to RIT’s NYSERDA-sponsored Clean Energy Incubator, a joint industry outreach effort by Venture Creations and the Golisano Institute for Sustainability to assist early-stage clean energy companies in product development, business and marketing planning and technology commercialization. The incubator is one of six statewide and part of New York State’s clean energy initiative.
Venture Creations, on Tech Park Drive, off John Street, which borders the east side of the RIT’s Henrietta campus. Since opening in 2003, it has housed 57 companies, created 340 jobs and brought in more than $30 million in private capital raised.