Biosolids Technology Analysis

C.A.L.L. is the acronym for the Center for Army Lessons Learned. Born of the urgent necessity for quick answers to what works and what doesn’t in solving unforeseen problems in Army field operations, the U.S. Army formalized a process of capturing practical responses to “s___ happens” kinds of events. Read at least the foreword to this program.

Boy, wouldn’t it be helpful in our biosolids business to have 24-7 access to lessons and best practices of biosolids practitioners around the world so that we could have practicable solutions to unforeseen problems!?

In the spirit of collective wisdom and practical problem solving, I and the rest of the “New Jersey Residuals” Team visited this past week several major digestion and biogas facilities. First stop was the treatment plant in Wooster, Ohio. This facility demonstrates a practical biosolids solution in its partnership with the quasar energy group. A Wooster case study could be a living example of what C.A.L.L. would look like for our wastewater/biosolids industry, if only we had one.

Quasar energy group handles all of the biosolids from Wooster’s conventional treatment system, and provides the agency with digestion, dewatering and utilization services under a 20-year contract. This project is well outlined in the company’s brochure. Quasar has installed at Wooster an amazing digester and co-gen system for converting, along with wastewater solids, high strength organic wastes, collected from industries in the community, into biogas and then electricity. So much electricity is generated from so much organic wastes, about five time the wastewater solids, that much is left over for the grid. This week an electric cable is connecting quasar’s generators at the POTW to Wooster’s new public water filtration plant.

Wooster’s alliance with quasar energy group has been a practicable answer to an intractable problem. Wooster had spent $25 million in public capital on a solids handling process that failed at its plant and it needed a replacement solution that could be funded privately and expeditiously, if it had any hope of avoiding heavy fines from environmental agencies.

Wooster's Steve Carruthers provided his view of the failure that, in a twist to an old saying, was the mother of the quasar invention.  The failure involved a sludge reduction technology, Cannibal.

Carruther's story opened up a flood of memories for me and sparked conversation with one of my fellow New Jersey Residuals visitors, Dennis Palmer, executive director of Landis Sewerage Authority. We reminisced over failed technologies of the past.

Though it has been nearly 25 years, I remember clearly the call I got from sales engineer, Rob Tucker, announcing that he wanted me in Philadelphia to be among the very first to hear of “Micronair,” a new technology that would totally eliminate sludge. Rob was known to me as the account representatives for Enviro-Gro, one of the early ancestors of Synagro, and he now returned wearing this new hat. Rob was not put off by my skepticism, and several years later he re-emerged with a "son-of-micronair" -- Cannibal.

The goal of “sludge reduction,” the class of technology of which Cannibal is part, has been driving a lot of innovative technologies over the past thirty years. (See the IWA Wiki article.) Among those that have had been offered with such hopefulness include two that I was pitched -- Rob Stephenson’s Microsludge, a technology of Paradigm Environmental Technologies, and Harry Simmon’s OpenCEL focused pulse technology for WAS pretreatment, more recently a Trojan technology. The bloom is off both, but not for want of trying. These guys were committed evangelists. Cambi thermal hydrolysis is also of that generation, and I bet I was among Keith Panter’s first approaches.  Panter was no more or less the evangelist, but Cambi is the success story; cream (or is it sludge) rises to the top.

But who could have foretold which technology would work and which not?  In WERF's "Biosolids Management: Evaluation of Innovative Processes," Micronair and OpenCEL were classified as "innovative," a class ahead in development than Cambi's "embryonic" designation in that mid-90s report (96-REM-1)

I had sat through several conference presentations on Cannibal, but until this week, and until the conversation with Steve, I hadn’t actually talked to someone who was personally witnessed Cannibal in action. The bottom line, Cannibal at Wooster is dead, the autopsy is not complete. But now, Cannibal's failure provided the opening for a new and promising technology, and quasar’s operation is in place, expanding, but also not yet complete, with issues of odors and nutrients to still work on.

For me the curiosity with Cannibal is that the stories of its successes and failures as a technology vary so wide. Judging from Google searches, some are sad failures, such as Albany, Oregon (read, “Still struggling with stinky sludge”), and Winter Haven, Florida. And then there are those that seem like wonderful successes, like Lebanon, in Oregon, and the City of Clovis and Big Bear City, in California. Siemens is apparently in partnership with CH2MHill to have Cannibal packaged as a solution internationally, so perhaps the early stumbling is behind them. I have read several journal articles (check out John Novak’s paper “Biological Solids Reduction Using the Cannibal Process”) and cannot yet discern the circumstances under which Cannibal might provide a useful solution. I am left wondering, does Cannibal really work, or not?

Generally speaking, what gives with how the wastewater profession assesses technology? If you are an agency manager, where do you go to get some basic, objective information on Cannibal or other sludge reduction technologies that can help you decide if there is something in it for you?

Why is there not a Center for Biosolids Lessons Learned that could give you some direction?

But this is not just an issue for sludge reduction technologies.   We have had a host of thermochemical projects that have come and gone, and worked and not worked. Dennis had his “oxyozosynthesis” story, in which a New Jersey utility director championing this innovation spent time in jail (New Jersey Sewage Official Quits After Being Charged in Dumping). I had my EcoTechnology story, the gasification technology company that sought, through the gubernatorial connections of its CEO Richard Lewis, to go beyond just having Philly merely playing host to its non-functional demonstration plant to having a long-term contract for processing biosolids into energy and char. Its bankruptcy allowed us to dodge that political bullet with grace.

Both Dennis and I survey the wastewater landscape for the experience of other agencies.  For those of us who genuinely wished success to EnerTech in Rialto, CA, do we not deserve a cogent report on what happened? And the first such project I looked at closely, Enersludge in Perth, Australia, was described in compelling journal articles by its creator, but Enersludge quietly disappeared without a postmortem. And when the Dragon Dryer experienced a few explosions, it, too, disappeared, to the credit of its owner, but with no useful, accessible explanation of what went wrong. We ought to be clear on this, because many agencies seem to be embracing dryers today.

Composting is another biosolids technology that deserves failure analysis and lessons learned. When I started with Philadelphia in the 1980s, a dozen different patented technologies competed for municipal installations. Many were reviewed in concept by EPA, and some hyped heavily. Where are they today?

Dennis and I can spend a lot of time talking together of composting technologies. He was witness to the gestation of Camden’s star-crossed Ashbrook-Hartley-Simon tunnel reactor, which, though full of promise, never truly operated in Camden, despite many tens of million dollars in public investment. And, I and hundreds of my colleagues in Philadelphia struggled for 20 years to make Aerated Static Pile composting really work for biosolids, as did our friends at DC Water and Sewer Authority and Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission. All three, gone.

But biosolids composting is successful many places and a viable option.  Have we yet a guidebook that gives us a bottom line to what works and what does not, and why, in biosolids composting? This is strange considering that, I can argue, composting is the most successful of Class A, consumer-friendly production technologies.

The wastewater profession seems to have a cultural aversion to truth telling and objective forensic investigation of technology failures. Is engineering liability the concern? Is it fear of public embarrassment? Is it laziness? Whatever the reason, we need to embrace the benefits of undertaking a fact-finding of circumstances that have led to technology failures, and have the facts laid out transparently for all of us to learn by. We deserve access to this kind of database of lessons learned and best practices, if not 24-7 like the Army Center for Lessons Learned, then at least 9-5.

We genuinely need a COBLL, a Center of Biosolids Lessons Learned!