THE SOURCE-SEPARATION SEWER OF THE FUTURE – ONE STEP CLOSER TO THE NET-ZERO WATER HOUSEHOLD
"My agricultural background has indubitably given me my interest in the environment and has contributed to my choice of career, but it’s also meant that I now prefer to stay away from gardening work!” says Björn.
Following graduation he studied chemical engineering at Mälardalen University, specialising in medicinal chemistry. Björn had always had an interest in the environment, and when he took up an SLU doctoral studentship in environmental engineering – specifically source-separation sewage systems – Björn switched specialisations. That’s now 20 years ago now.
Plant nutrients from cites to rural areas in an efficient cycle
Björn's area of specialisation area is environmental and life-cycle technology, specialising in safely taking plant nutrients from cities to rural areas. To start with, Björn researched into sanitising technology, i.e. how to remove unwanted substances and contagions from the cycle. That research led to the development together with the company Peepoople of a self-sanitising toilet solution currently available on the Kenyan market under the name PeePoo. The combination of process technology, chemical engineering and microbiology in this field makes the whole thing as interesting as it is complex. Björn currently leads a research group comprising five researchers, five doctoral students and two research technicians in the field of cyclical development, sanitising technology and protein production using maggots.
"One of the things we’re trying to do is create the source-separation sewer of the future. How can we deal with our waste whilst using as little energy and water as possible? The key to the research is to seek an environmentally adapted system that is financially sustainable, mainly by asking ourselves how we can get value from waste products,” says Björn.
Source-separating toilets without water and sewage
Over 90% of all the water consumed domestically is used to remove waste. When we flush toilets, do the washing-up, take a shower and clean, water is used in that very way. We only use about 10 litres of water per person per day for cooking or drinking. In urban and property construction there has long been talk of ‘zero-energy buildings’ as a vision, i.e. properties not consuming more energy than they produce themselves, e.g. using solar energy. In the development of sewage and waste management, work on cyclical technology is seeking realisation of a similar vision: ‘zero water’. Apart from the water savings achieved by the toilets Björn and his team are developing, one can dry the fractions to produce solid concentrated fertilisers. This technology also avoids installation of water and drainage pipes. So the potential benefits are enormous!
The experience of using the toilet will also correspond to current use of a normal WC, and waste management will be easy and convenient, much like replacement of a printer ink cartridge. A test facility will soon be up and running at Björn's institution, and dialogue has commenced with several Swedish stakeholders who have shown great interest, e.g. the City of Malmö.
Function and economy are the basis for introducing new behaviours into society
One of the greatest insights Björn has gained after almost two decades as a researcher in the field of environmental and cyclical technology is that in the long run alarming reports and environmental commitment alone are insufficient to create new environmentally friendly habits and behaviours amongst the populace. Function and economy are crucial to bringing about change.
"Function and the economy – not just the environment – must be the driving force. The result must be a better environment. In your everyday life you must thus benefit from improving the environment, and doing this has to be extremely straightforward. It will then be sustainable in the long term,” says Björn.
The clearest example of this is source separation of solid waste. We currently separate paper, food waste, glass, metal, batteries etc. and take them to a recycling station. When the availability of stations and glass igloos increased and the ease of handling became apparent, it simply became more straightforward and ‘less messy’ to sort waste than to ‘push everything down into the one and the same rubbish bag’, as we used to do
SLU Holding has helped with patents and contractual issues
Björn's goal is to continue working as a researcher. It is at the same time important for Björn that the research he and his team are working on will benefit society.
"What drives me is that our research is put to use and in practice contributes to a better environment. As we have to compete for our research funds, there is an additional purpose in endeavouring to commercialise one’s research. Producing an application in the form of a product on the market means we can fund our future research, which means we can continue this research,” says Björn.
SLU Holding has been helpful in taking the steps from research to market. In concrete terms, SLU Holding has helped with patent and contract issues, and has been at our side as a partner in discussions and as an additional provider of expertise in the field of product and business development.
Two important simultaneous thoughts
So what is Björn's best advice in terms of getting a research idea to eventually become an innovation on a market?
"As a researcher, you need to keep research development and product development separate. Research comes first. The research issue is crucial, as is maintaining the level of research within the research group. But you also need a long-term goal for your research, and need to see a potential use and seek the assistance of those with knowledge of that aspect. Quite simply two important thoughts to bear in mind simultaneously,” Björn concludes.