Opinion: Unlocking water resources using biomimicry
Water reuse
Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Arthur Umble:使用Biomimicry解锁水资源

Why the term ‘wastewater’ is outdated

A truly circular economy must include water resource recovery, and designing as nature is the best process to follow. By Arthur Umble.

The term “wastewater” is outdated. For years, engineers like me designed wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) for communities around the globe. That traditional treatment was all about disposal. No thought was given to recovery of resources, including the water.

It was very linear: waste in, waste treated, and the cleaned “waste” sent into the environment.

Today, it’s much more appropriate to think of those facilities as water resource recovery factories (WRRF) because most of what is in wastewater is not waste. It shouldn’t be about treatment and then disposal. It should be about recovery.

As Earth's natural resources become scarce, resource recovery is our industry's link to the circular economy. Not only is resource recovery here to stay, but it's also growing.


What’s in the wastewater


Honestly, most people don’t give much thought to what’s in their community’s wastewater. The thinking is: there is no value in “waste.” But that’s incorrect.

Raw wastewater entering a WRRF has several potential value streams: water, energy, nutrients, and products.


Energy:运输燃料,包括生物燃料,鲍威r and heat. About 20 per cent of energy in wastewater is the form of chemical energy; about 80 per cent is heat. A lot of resource value is in these wastewaters.


Products:A wide variety, including pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, performance materials, metals, and fertilizers. Here we're looking mostly at the carbon-based products in our waste streams. Carbon is organic, and we can use it to replace plastics by building bioplastics from these polymers. We can support the biofuels industry, the pharmaceuticals industry, etc. These products all exist.

But how best do we recover those items from the “waste” stream? Turn to nature. It knows what it’s doing.

Managing our resources through biomimicry

Biomimicry is not designing WITH nature but designing AS nature.


Following nature’s lead can be summed up in the “3 Ms: model, mentor and measure:

  1. 型号:直接与自然重新连接。自然通知设计框架。

  2. Mentor: Emulating nature’s strategies for survival. Nature teaches us about how to use resources, rather than simply providing us with resources for our use.

  3. 衡量标准:3,800亿多年的进化发展,为3000万已知的物种现在可以作为我们的可持续性基准。自然知道有什么作用和持续的东西 - 它是生态标准。

As we look to nature, there are two paradigms to consider.

问题:Solution paradigm is the "reactive" paradigm. Here we have a known problem, and we go to nature to see if we can find analogies where nature has developed a solution. Then we take that solution and apply it.

The solution:问题范式是“主动”范式。在这里,我们专注于观察自然功能的功能。它为我们提供了解决方案的问题,我们尚未知道我们会产生的问题。



Examples of biomimetic technologies

Our industry is only now beginning to understand the opportunities biomimetic principles pose for resource recovery technologies that are disruptive. Here are several examples:

  • 微藻:从废水中培养的微藻是破坏性的,因为它可以通过它做的事情解决了多种问题:除去营养物质并产生能量,同时为大气碳提供水槽。

  • 生物聚合物:Building biopolymers from carbon recovered from wastewater is disruptive because of the many uses that can be found for biopolymers that are environmentally beneficial, from bioplastics to biofuels. These products can go into markets - supporting the circular economy. As a side benefit, we are reducing energy use in the plant by not having to remove all the carbon.

  • Bioelectrical-chemical Systems (BES):这些系统通过使用在分解有机物质时转移细菌的自然过程来应用生物化原理。通过捕获这些电子,可以生产清洁,电能。有趣的是,我们可以与微藻一起使用BES,并产生生物聚合物以使化学产品制作 - 驱动循环经济。同样,这是一种破坏性的技术。


Biomimicry is our model, our measure, and our mentor to a successful transition of treating wastewater for disposal to it being a driver for a circular economy.



Biomimicry is likely the only way we approach treatment that allows us to get the enterprise piece out of our wastewater. It helps us to get nutrients, energy, water, chemicals and products out and into a form that it can be sold.

These are economic benefits for the community. That is really the key. That’s how you get the circular engine going, and that’s our future.



Global Wastewater Practice Leader

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