Ofwat and Nesta Challenges have announced the winners of the £5.2m Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst Stream. 13 collaborations between the water sector and organisations outside of the sector – including technology companies, universities and gas and electricity companies – have been awarded for innovative and hi-tech approaches to improve water quality, environmental impact and services for consumers.
Winners include projects to use robots that identify problems in pipes so they can be fixed before they could burst, using microorganisms to remove ammonia from wastewater without generating nitrous oxide, and removing and recycling agricultural fertilisers that may have entered the water system using micro-algae.
Between now and the summer, the Water Breakthrough Challenge will award up to £39m to projects across England and Wales. The Water Breakthrough Challenge is part of a series of competitions from Ofwat, and run by Nesta Challenges with Arup and Isle Utilities, designed to drive innovation and collaboration in the sector to benefit individuals, society and the environment.
13 projects will benefit from the first tranche of awards announced today (22 March), known as the “Catalyst Stream”.
Improving water and river quality
Several innovations to improve water quality have been awarded prizes. Severn Trent, working with California-based Microvi Biotechnologies and Cranfield University, has been awarded £760,000 to begin work on a “biocatalyst solution” that uses microorganisms that remove ammonia from wastewater without generating nitrous oxide emissions (a gas 300 times more potent than CO2).
“Tapwater Forensics” from a consortium of seven water companies and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has been awarded £370,000 to meet its aim of establishing the UK as a leader in genetic sequencing of drinking water to revolutionise the ability to monitor and investigate water quality failures in the same way DNA testing revolutionised medicine and scientific research.
And £446,000 has been awarded to “SuPR Loofah” by Northumbrian Water, Welsh Water, the University of Newcastle and the University of Northumbria. The project removes and recovers phosphorous run-off from agricultural fertilisers using engineered micro-algae. This prevents it causing damaging algal blooms and uncontrolled outbreaks of weeds in watercourses which can suffocate natural ecosystems. Phosphorous is an essential but finite energy-intensive chemical resource which is diminishing – this new circular approach would see it re-used as fertiliser in agriculture. It can also reduce imports of phosphorus for farming and its associated emissions from mining and transportation.
Fixing leaks and preventing pollution
In addition, projects that could contribute to preventing leaks from water pipes and sewers, and keeping associated repair costs down, have received £400,000. Yorkshire Water’s “Designer Liner” which can be retrofitted into existing water pipes, prevents leaks and extends the life of national water infrastructure. It in turn reduces the amount of water abstracted (i.e. removed) from watercourses which should also cut energy usage and costs to customers.
Meanwhile, “Pipebots” from Thames Water, the University of Sheffield and Synthotech Ltd are robots that can monitor sewer rising mains from the inside. Too often, rising main faults only come to light should they burst. The robot monitors enable preventative inspections while the pipe is in use to minimise the risk of pollution spills by identifying faults before a pipe ever fails.
Harry Armstrong, Director, Ofwat said: “It is great to see the water sector deliver more exciting and impactful projects through this round of Ofwat’s Water Breakthrough Challenge. The winners all have huge potential to benefit people, society and the natural environment. I’m excited to see these projects become reality and start to make a real difference in the way we do things.”
Myrtle Dawes, Solution Centre Director of the Net Zero Technology Centre and chair of the Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst Stream judging panel said: “It’s a pivotal moment for the water sector – meeting the challenges of climate change head on and making good on promises of improved water quality across the water system at pace. There is no silver bullet to fix these challenges – they all require multiple approaches and solutions like those awarded funding today.”
More to come
The Water Breakthrough Challenge is a £39 million competition, which aims to bring forward industry-leading innovation that deliver benefits for water customers, society, and the environment, split into two streams, the £5.2m Catalyst Stream and the Transform Stream which will award up to £34m. They are both part of Ofwat’s £200m Water Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. The Transform Stream will award funding later in the spring.
Both streams were open to initiatives aligned with one or more of Ofwat’s five strategic innovation themes. Initiatives submitted to the Catalyst stream were called on, at a minimum, to reach the stage of prototyping and testing some components of their solution with real users; while initiatives in the Transform stream should go beyond this and deliver tangible benefits for customers, society and the environment. The Transform stream winners will be announced later in the Spring.