For much of history, humanity has looked to the skies for provision. Where rain fell and water collected, civilizations would form, crops would grow and life would flourish. While water remains necessary today, our relationship with it has changed as urban amenities have replaced agricultural realities. In an age where taps contain a seemingly endless supply, it can be difficult to think of water as a precious commodity. Where it is abundant, accessible, and inexpensive, it is easy to take water for granted. But what is the true value of water and how might we choose to steward it better?
One Portland State Business Accelerator startup, Aquastry, is helping companies to consider these questions with green and sustainable solutions. Aquastry enables businesses to treat, manage, and recycle their wastewater, reminding them to see water as the valuable resource it is.
For industries ranging from construction to tech to fat rendering plants, water remains a one-off resource-- tapped once and flushed down the drain. Water used to process, filter, clean, transport, or create materials is discarded and rendered useless by the very pollutants it picks up over its course of use.
By installing custom treatment systems, Aquastry can give wastewater new life. Their patented blends of bio and chemical polymers bind to metals, fats, oils, bacterias, algae, petroleum hydrocarbons, and sediment in water, forming suspended solids that can be removed in a sand filter then filtered further by a set of membranes. Altogether, the process can remove contaminants to the part per trillion level.
Using these Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and State Department of Environmental Quality approved chemistries, Aquastry is able to restore up to 98% of previously contaminated water to usable and even potable states which can directly displace incoming city water. This treatment allows companies not only to save water, but money.
According to founder and principal engineer of Aquastry, Lisa Farmen, some companies that release their wastewater into the sewer system pay between 50 to 200 thousand dollars a month in sanitation surcharges to the city.
“That’s money you lose, paying someone else to clean your water for you,” says Farmen. Farmen estimates that companies using one of her chemical systems would be able to recoup their installation and maintenance costs in under two years while dramatically increasing their long-term returns on investment for water. Additionally, because of the non-toxic nature of Aquastry’s methods, companies like those in the food and beverage industries may even be able to develop secondary income streams, repurposing their filtered solids for commercial products such as animal feed.
Beyond the potential economic benefits, there are also humanitarian reasons a company may want to reclaim its wastewater. With only 1.2% of the world’s total water considered potable, the privilege of harnessing large quantities comes with great responsibility. “With resources scarce, it is important for companies to use their share wisely,” said Farmen. With factors such as climate change and increased urban density placing stress on water supplies, industry, as well as municipal water resource managers must also recognize the human impact of wastewater when things go wrong. Incomplete or improper treatment of industrial water may lead to hazardous material leaking into home pipes and spell devastation for vulnerable populations like Flint, Michigan.
Farmen is hopeful that with the potential for a renewed focus on water quality from the federal government, companies will begin to rethink their use of water in the years to come. She is also excited to continue working with other green and sustainable companies and organizations in service of the greater good.
One such partner is AquaPrawnics, a Montana-based supplier of sustainably grown shrimp that is set to open their second plant later this year in Tillamook. In this newly formed partnership, Aquastry provides treatment systems and receives access to chitosan, a material found in shrimp and crab shells that serves as a key and crucial component in Aquastry’s chemistries. Previously, the wholesale distribution of shells was available only internationally from Southeast Asia. With their first domestic crop of shrimp harvested in December of 2020, Farmen believes that their future with AquaPrawnics is bright. In time, the two companies hope to develop a carbon-negative business model that takes waste products and turns them into business resources and assets.
Aquastry is continuing to explore new opportunities locally at PSU as well. In March, the company will welcome its first batch of undergrads as part of the university’s senior year capstone program. Farmen also intends to partner with Propel’s Center for Entrepreneurship, recruiting students interested in entering the cleantech sector as potential interns.
Looking ahead, Farmen is excited for a younger wave of advocates to come out of PSU and for fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to emerge from this infusion of new blood. Already, she has targeted several new markets that she hopes her students will help Aquastry to break into. She also hopes students will be able to help the company deepen its already established relationship with AquaPrawnics and develop new partners in their carbon-negative supply chain as well.
“To change the game, we’re going to need companies to really see why they need to take the contaminants out of their water. And to do that, It can’t just be me,” said Farmen. “I’ve had the same conversation over and over again for forty years and I think the time has come for this generation to take the lead. We’re going to need more people to chase companies down to make our case for a clean, green, and sustainable future and I have a good feeling PSU is going to rise to the challenge.”