Sustainability, Digital Transformation Lead the Efforts
Water is necessary for nearly all production, yet the demands for clean drinking water supplies are increasing.
Even with the need for a continuous, clean flow and the difficulty to manage water, H2O sometimes is an afterthought for process manufacturing companies.
“Despite its fundamental role across the economy, water is all too often managed in a fragmented manner, leaving national and regional growth strategies disconnected from insights into available and planned water resources,” according to The Global Water Initiative. “This results in competition across users, mismanaged trade-offs, disruptions to operations, and under-investment for critical infrastructure.”
Staying Within the Law
While the management of water and wastewater already are in some turmoil, companies also are dealing with increasing pressures from environmental laws and regulations.
Government regulations locally and globally have become stricter about treating downstream water that people or animals might consume, which requires producers either to recycle or clean wastewater before it leaves a plant. Upstream water is a concern, too, for process use or cooling.
“Upstream of the plant, chemical processors must make sure to have the right water quality for their processes,” said Charlotte Fischer, who is with the Customer Success team at TrendMiner.
Fischer, who has a biochemical engineering background, recently spoke with Chemical Engineering magazine.
“Downstream of the plant, utility and used process water leave the plant,” said Fischer. “While utility water can in some cases be reused or released to the environment, industrial wastewater is often an undesirable by-product.”
To address water quality control needs, two trends have become the spotlight of water and wastewater treatment: sustainability and digital transformation.
Sustaining Water’s Flow
As Fischer notes in her article, sustainability includes the preservation of water and energy, but it also helps adhere to regulations and water shortages.
One method to increase sustainability is to recycle water and send the water back upstream. However, recycling can be an expensive endeavor, and not all plants are equipped with the tools to do it.
Another is Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD), which means that producers eliminate the discharge of water used during the production process. But this method has challenges and mostly is useful in regions where water is a shortage. It also requires a lot of energy.
When cleaning the water, several processes can help decrease the cost. Such methods include:
- Biological processes that include membrane-aerated biofilm reactors (MBR), advanced oxidation processes (AOP), and advanced filter materials
- Chemical treatments that make water safe to drink, or at least safe to empty into streams, rivers, and lakes
Analyzing Drips Digitally
Engineers and operators used to be essential onsite. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the world’s workforce to off-site or hybrid work. While essential employees remained, the loss of employees in a plant led to more digitalization efforts.
Industrial analytics, IoT, and automation have become more important to the water and wastewater industries. Even before the pandemic, engineers and operators were beginning to adopt digital methods to track trends in water processing.
However, the water industry has not been as quick to adopt digitalization as other industries, such as chemical plants. Furthermore, digital transformation needs to be aligned with the companies that use them, as different parameters are necessary for different products.
Sustainability and Digitalization: Practical Use Cases
Use Case #1: Fine Tuning Energy Costs
A reverse osmosis plant was being fined as much as $2,200 per month by the government when their energy consumption reached a certain level. Operators had a theory about what was causing the problem: the energy used to clean one liter of water depends on the number of reverse osmosis units running.
However, the company had no way to test this theory using conventional methods. Using TrendMiner to visualize data over a two-month period, operators were able to determine two things:
- Total energy consumption increased for the total amount of treated water, but the energy efficiency was different for producing with either one or two reverse osmosis skids
- Power usage was much lower when operating with two reverse osmosis skids, especially at high production rates.
When operators learned the correlation between running in parallel, they were able to reduce energy consumption and, consequently, reduce the number of fines.
Use Case #2: Pumps in Sequence Reduce Energy
Energy costs were high at a water treatment facility that used a lot of pumps. These pumps were using more energy than the plant wanted to consume, and its leaders were looking for a way to shed some of the cost.
Company engineers used TrendMiner to review the energy consumption of the pumps in operation with historical pump data. They were able to demonstrate that the pump switching cycle was consuming more energy.
Using the new information, company engineers optimized the pump switching schedule to save energy costs.
Use Case #3: Cleaning Schedules at the Right Time
A wastewater treatment plant wanted to optimize the maintenance schedule for the aeration elements of a biological process used to clean the water, but the aerators suffer from fouling. This requires regular cleaning. The company wanted to move from the time-based cleaning schedule it was using to condition-based maintenance schedule.
Operators used TrendMiner to monitor oxygen concentration during the nitrification of the wastewater treatment. Comparing the trends with historical data, the operators learned that oxygen levels sometimes decreased below the acceptable threshold.
When trends revealed the oxygen abnormality pointed to dirty aerators, the company knew that they needed to be cleaned. The company was able to move to a maintenance-based schedule.
Supporting Water Stability
Pumps break. Aerator elements foul. And demands on improving water quality—both for production use and human consumption—are growing.
Anomalies such as these in water and wastewater processes can become burdensome when they increase costs and decrease the quality of a finished product.
The use of analytics, automation, IoT, and self-analyzation trends themselves can help control water and wastewater issues. Engineers and operators can make better decisions about how to sustain water and reduce energy costs by adopting a more digital-friendly plant.
From approaches that help save energy to others that keep the flow of water steady, digital transformation may be water sustainability’s best friend.