Biosolids 4th Industrial Revolution

The first week of June was amazing for me. I had whiplash from four days in Dublin, Ireland, followed by four days in Ithaca, New York. The first was for the BlueTech Forum  on water technology and the second a college reunion (my 45th!), where I traipsed through Cornell’s spanking new Gates Hall for Computing and Information Sciences and Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering.

Paul O’Callaghan named his BlueTech Forum “Water and the 4th Industrial Revolution.”  Paul explains in a LinkedIn article ( The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the water sector), the 4th revolution is “fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that affect all disciplines, economies and industries.”

The 4th Industrial Revolution is the new new thing. It is all about the IoT, or the “Internet of Things.”  At BlueTech, the keynote speaker Philip Moynagh threw out the projection that by 2020 30 billion devices will be interconnected through the “IoT,” and Moynagh has a deep pedigree, i.e., as VP at Intel, on this topic (see his briefYouTube introduction). 

But the push for the IoT and the 4th Industrial Revolution is everywhere now. Microsoft’s marketing piece on IoT emphasizes cloud-based interconnection of data-collection equipment for real-time problem-solving. The World Economic Forum opened just this past month in San Francisco the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to “discuss ethical issues, values and regulations.” This revolution is about “mobile platforms,” “virtual management,” “superintelligence,” and “machine learning.”  

The 4th industrial revolution includes AI, or artificial intelligence.  Accenture defines AI as technology that senses, comprehends, acts and learns beyond direct human action and promises “disruption, transformation ahead” .

The 4th Industrial revolution also includes “predictive analytics, “ about which SAS (which claims it is “the analytics leaders”) says: “Predictive analytics is the use of data, statistical algorithms and machine learning techniques to identify the likelihood of future outcomes based on historical data. The goal is to go beyond knowing what has happened to providing a best assessment of what will happen in the future.”

The 4th industrial revolution is also about sensors. The article “Cheaper Sensors Will Fuel The Age Of Smart Everything” claims that “...sensors, the tiny devices that fuel the Internet of Things, are getting smaller and cheaper all the time. As they do, we will start to see them transmitting data from some highly unlikely intelligent devices, while tracking everything from road conditions to building health to cars to industrial equipment.”

But what does that mean for biosolids?   First, the biosolids industry needs to break out from the constraints imposed by 25-year-old regulation of century old technology. Our comfortable “silos” or “stovepipes” have no place in this revolution. We need instead to embrace the systems within which biosolids is embedded: the toilet flushing residents, the industrial dischargers, the sewer system, the treatment plant components, the truckers, the farmers and their neighbors, and the soils, crops and waters.

The Biosolids 4th Industrial Revolution (let’s abbreviate it B4IR) could mean reduced sewer-borne contaminants.  What might that look like?  We could be monitoring influent for changes that forecast product quality challenges.  RealTech Inc., a BlueTech Forum participants, develops contaminant alarms for sensing substances requiring adjustments to treatment.  The Product Stewardship Institute’s 2017 Forum in Boston, July 27 & 28th, is promoting programs for pharmaceutical take-backs, for instance; that is a pathway to reduced pollutant discharges. While progress may be temporarily stalled, the move to “green chemistry” seems inevitable: U.S. vs. EU: Chemicals substitution faceoff.  There is substantial public and regulatory resistance to persistent toxics in consumer products, as in the use of triclosan (FDA Bans 19 Chemicals Used In Antibacterial Soaps and Why Scientists Are Concerned About Triclosan).  At the BlueTech Forum, Henrik Hagemann  of CustoMem offers automatic monitoring and extraction of micropollutants; watch his Linkedin pitch  talking about automatic monitoring and extraction of micropollutants.  Over time, contaminants in biosolids decrease.

B4IR would improve biosolids “stability. What might that look like? Stabilization processes, such as anaerobic digestion, will no longer be “black boxes,” but will come under process controls through real-time monitoring of microbial and biological activity. There is a lot of evidence of this type of capability.  Technologists are showing that fecal pollution of streams from swine lagoons can be monitored in real-time (Development and evaluation of a self-cleaning custom-built auto sampler controlled by a low-cost RaspberryPi microcomputer for online enzymatic activity measurements), that influent to our WRRFs can be monitored for microbial diversity (Diversity and population structure of sewage-derived microorganisms in wastewater treatment plant influent), that volatile fatty acids in digesters can be measured in real-time (Microbial Electrochemical Monitoring of Volatile Fatty Acids during Anaerobic Digestion), and that total volatile organic compounds can be measured by “electronic noses” (Ship-borne measurements of microbial enzymatic activity: A rapid biochemical indicator for microbial water quality monitoring).  If water treatment can develop real-time microbial monitoring, as with LuminUltra Technologies Ltd’s microbiological testing line, we can anticipate doing so with the microbial health of our digesters. So, we can foresee monitoring sludge digesters and cake storage for pathogens, VFAs and odorants, but importantly we can foresee using that data for process optimization. That level of sophisticated control is already underway in several advanced facilities (Implementation of an integrated real-time control system of sewer system and waste water treatment plant in the city of Wilhelmshaven).

The potential for B4IR in pollution source control and stabilization is only a start to its role in improved biosolids quality. Imagine B4IR in balancing nutrients, as in improving the carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus ratio so that biosolids can have an ideal nutrient balance.  Our industry is still in the early stages of responding to concerns for minimizing environmental releases of nitrogen (see especially Nitrogen–climate interactions in US agriculture in which technologies to reduce nitrogen’s harm to climate “await effective incentives to become adopted”)  and for conserving phosphorus for the future (see Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance to review the urgency of this goal). I foresee the potential for adding carbon to the biosolids, to mitigate risks of nitrate release to groundwater and ammonia volatilization, as could be accomplished with blending in pulp and paper mill sludges (Pulp and paper mill by-products as soil amendments and plant nutrient sources).  

B4IR could entail an array of other improvements. Allied with the goal of nutrient balancing is the goal of increased solids content in the biosolids product, as could be achieved with utilizing waste heat for biosolids belt drying (e.g., Applying waste heat recovery system in a sewage sludge dryer – A technical and economic optimization),  and the goal of optimized polymer usage, as might be achievable with well-controlled mixing, resting and dosing equipment (e.g., PolyBlend® M-Series Liquid Polymer Wetting and Activation System). These are just a few of many examples of B4IR technology advances that we see today in early stages of introduction and that may one day enable us to leap forward with improved biosolids quality.

B4IR would improve the use of biosolids through land application. What might that look like? The agricultural industry is under scrutiny globally to reduce its carbon footprint, increase nutrient use efficiency, protect soil resources, and prevent spread of antibiotic resistance. These are the very same challenges which confront biosolids managers. “Precision agriculture,” while apparently slow to meet its early hype, is poised to leap forward with increased resolution of satellite imagery, with cheap drone technology, and with “on-the-go” ground level sensors of crops and soils. These tools of precision agriculture provide data for a network array of operating systems (Twenty five years of remote sensing in precision agriculture: Key advances and remaining knowledge gaps) that target water, pest control and nutrients for “customized management for individual plants.”  Sensors on biosolids production could provide “on-the-go” percent total solids and nutrient content of biosolids delivered to the farm field. The GPS control of application equipment could deliver biosolids at precise rates for targeted crop yields. The data collection would result in real-time documentation of biosolids loading rates and, hence, regulatory reports of field operations. With this data in hand, feedback on greenhouse gases, nutrient use efficiency and crop yields could be gathered to calculate the beneficial role of biosolids, a role that today is asserted but not documented.

I challenge you to listen to the 3-minute video from the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  If you believe, as I do, that accelerating global urbanization with its concomitant harmful dislocation of nutrients, organic matter, and pollutants to coastal rivers and estuaries and with its corollary rural loss of soil quality poses a massive threat to humanity’s survival, then B4IR can be your framework for humanity’s solution to the threat.  The kicker is that B4IR requires that we change ourselves.  Solutions will come from “emerging markets,” involving a “superintelligence” arising from “human and machine” collaborations working at a speed and at a level of technological creativity and sophistication for which we are poorly prepared. Nothing in this video will provide a comfortable place for managers of wastewater utilities or for the consulting engineers who place their seal on plans and specs.  But, technology is changing at a revolutionary pace, and today we need to respond with Revolutionary Biosolids.