Israeli firm Applied CleanTech has developed a sewage mining system that picks out and recycles useful fibers from raw urban and industrial wastewater, increasing the efficiency of treatment plants and reducing the amount of unwanted sludge.
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The company's first commercial system, housed in a shipping container weighing 17 metric tons, sits beneath the hillside town of Safed in northern Israel and sifts through sewage before it enters the municipal treatment center.
At the end of its conveyor belt, the device spits out pellets made from cellulose fibers, which are found in many discarded items, like baby wipes or fruits and vegetables, said chief executive Refael Aharon.
The wastewater from Safed is stained dark brown from runoff of a nearby coffee factory. The fiber-rich coffee beans are a windfall for Applied CleanTech's system.
The material in the pellets feels like the lint that gathers in a clothes dryer and is completely sterile, Aharon said.
It has a number of purposes. Aharon's business cards are made from recycled paper that in part came from the fibers. The pellets from Safed are mostly sold as an alternative combustion source.
The sewage then flows into the main wastewater plant for a more complete treatment. One of the plant's final by-products is called sludge, a semi-liquid waste that is often used as fertilizer, but can also be hazardous and is costly to dispose.
"Our system saves sewage treatment plants 20 to 30 percent of operational costs. The plant will consume less electricity, need fewer chemicals, and at the end it will have significantly less sludge," Aharon said.
A unit that can serve a town of 25,000 to 30,000 people costs in Israel about NIS 2.5 million ($700,000).
A handful of cities, in Israel and abroad, have already ordered Applied CleanTech's technology, Aharon said, and he expects about 10 more orders for 2014.
One of the company's investors is Boston-based venture capital firm Saturn Partners.