It’s not often that a business comes up with an idea that’s good for the environment and saves money at the same time. But that’s what Clearas Water Recovery, a Missoula tech company, believes it has done.
Formed eight years ago, the company has developed a patented process to use algae to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from public wastewater treatment plants, keeping waterways from being inundated with the compounds that starve fish and plant life of oxygen. In turn, the algae can be sold to other companies for fertilizer, biofuels and other uses.
Think of it as high tech farming.
As the global population skyrockets, nitrogen and phosphorous pollution is becoming a significant environmental concern. Often referred to as “nutrient loading,” these two elements cause algal blooms in lakes and rivers that create “dead zones” that devastate vegetation and animals.
Clearas officials say they have found a way to harness Mother Nature’s own solution to nutrient loading in a different way, making it a beneficial process that makes money instead of an ecological nightmare.
Sewage contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous, and those two elements happen to be what algae, the fastest-growing plant on the planet, likes to eat.
Phosphorous and nitrogen are in demand from the agriculture sector for their use as fertilizers. So rather than having life-killing algae in nature’s waterways, the nutrients can be put to use in corn fields.
“I think the simplest way to describe what we do is to say that we take harmful constituents out of the wastewater prior to discharge into our rivers, lakes and streams, and we do it biologically sustainably,” explained company CEO Jordan Lind.
There are other technologies for removing those nutrients, but they often involve chemical treatment.
Clearas formed as a company when algae farmers in the Bitterroot Valley wanted phosphorous and nitrogen from Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility to feed their biofuel. Lind recalls that the head of the wastewater facility told them they could take as much wastewater as they wanted for free, a much better alternative than buying synthetic nitrogen.
It was a “eureka” moment. Kevin McGraw, the company’s co-founder and operations manager, realized that they could develop a technology to harness wastewater’s nutrients to grow a valuable product while doing public utilities a favor.
“What they need to get rid of, our plants require,” Lind explained.
The company developed a testing facility at Missoula’s wastewater treatment plant on North Reserve. A series of tubes feed 15,000 gallons of wastewater per day through algae and return it to the Clark Fork River much cleaner than it was before.
The company recently landed a contract to implement their Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery technology at a Utah municipality called the South Davis Sewer District, which will be a 4-million-gallon-per-day system.
Lind said Montana has relatively lax environmental regulations on what wastewater facilities can discharge, but in other places tighter regulations mean that more and more cities will look to this technology.
“There’s a really natural connection between what the regulators want you to remove before discharge and exactly what algae requires,” he said. “What they want you to remove is phosphorous and nitrogen because phosphorous and nitrogen take and create limited oxygen in the discharge waters.
"Well, when you have limited oxygen in discharge waters, then plants and fish and others that rely on it die. Phosphorous and nitrogen are exactly what the regulator wants to get rid of, and phosphorous and nitrogen are a food source for algae.”
In fact, some of the explosions of bright green algae that can be found in the Clark Fork River and other bodies of water across the country in the summer are caused by too much nitrogen and phosphorous from agriculture runoff, laundry detergents and other sources.
The beauty, Lind says, is that Clearas is recovering the resource rather than just removing it. They have centrifugal machines that can turn the algae into whatever consistency a customer needs, whether it’s a watery sludge for fertilizing a field or a dry cake for making plastics or fuels.
“There’s lots of potential co-products that result from the treatment process,” Lind said. “So you truly are going waste-to-value. And that’s kind of the new trend in our space. All these municipalities and large industrial plants that have wastewater, there’s value in that waste. The question is how you convert it. And our method is a proven way to do that.”
Lind said there is a lot of interest in the company’s technology in the Great Lakes region, in Europe and in Asia.
“Bodies of water that are inland are great for us,” he said. “For wastewater, dilution is the solution to pollution. But when you don’t have an ocean to dilute into, then the problem compounds on itself.
"With the Great Lakes, you have a massive population and tons of nutrients are being discharged into landlocked lakes, so the Great Lakes are degrading. Political, economic, social, regulatory issues all combined around that, creating a hotbed, a firestorm of activity around water quality.”
The Utah contract is the first of what the company hopes will be a long line of dominoes to fall. In essence, they hope that once one municipality sees the technology working, then others will hop on board.
It’s a little more complicated because taxpayer funds have to be used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. However, they have high hopes. Right now, the company employs about three dozen people, and they have acquired an engineering firm to deal with helping cities implement the technology.
Andy Gordon, the company's market development manager, said he believes the technology could transform the world.
“When we say that we want to be a billion-dollar company from Montana, we’re not kidding,” he said.