Canadian Manufacturing

BC company’s sludge innovation turns global heads



Vancouver, B.C.: Wastewater may make most noses curl, but the Canadian company that came up with a new way of turning sludge into fertilizer is enjoying the sweet smell of success.

Vancouver’s Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies Inc. recently made the World Economic Forum’s 2011 list of technology pioneers ― a distinction for companies that spearhead major and proven technologies with potential for long-term impact on business and society.

The impact is already being seen at wastewater plants in the US and Canada, including Edmonton’s Gold Bar Treatment facility, where Ostara is recovering approximately 20 per cent of the plant’s 500,00-litre daily liquid biosolids stream.

Ostara’s Pearl Nutrient Recovery Process converts wastewater nutrients like phosphorus and ammonia into a fertilizer called Crystal Green, cutting plants’ maintenance and chemical costs by decreasing sludge volumes and disposal fees while preventing clogged equipment like pipes and pumps.

The city of Edmonton hosted the company’s first commercial-scale demonstration, after initial research at the University of British Columbia. Ostara has since built two commercial facilities at wastewater plants in the US, with plans for another in fall 2010.

Commercial facilities can expect to pay between $2 million to $5 million to invest in the process, with payoffs rolling in within a few years, according to Ahren Britton, Ostara’s chief technology officer.

Britton says there’s a bigger market in the U.S., but the company is still looking at other opportunities in Canada, especially in parts of the Prairies that have more stringent phosphorus limits.

A recent project involving partners both north and south of the border shipped 10 tonnes of Crystal Green produced from a Durham, Oregon plant up to British Columbia where it was used to enrich salmon streams. Britton jokes that this newest use of the fertilizer may seem “paradoxical” for a wastewater industry that spends so much time trying to get nutrients out of ― not into ― rivers. “But maybe it’s part of the reason we’re having such great salmon runs this year,” he adds.

Snagging a spot on the WEF list of 31 finalists ― out of more than 300 nominees ― is a big deal for the company, which early on faced a “big challenge and risk” bringing the technology to commercial scale. Britton credits funding from agencies like BC Hydro, Social Development Technology Canada (SDTC), and the National Research Council as “critical” to their success.

Despite that support, Ostara was the only Canadian pioneer to make the Forum’s list, where U.S. companies dominated with innovations ranging from new biofuels to LED software. A Green Island, N.Y. company called Ecovative Design came up with an agricultural resin substitute for the protective packaging market and a similar product that replaces insulation foams in large buildings. Novacem Ltd., a company in the United Kingdom, created a special silicate minerals cement that doesn’t release carbon dioxide.

Canadian cleantech start-ups could be more competitive in the global market if there were more certainty around investment risks, says Benjamin Dachis, a policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank.

“Companies can live and die by a subsidy because it’s not always going to be there forever,” Dachis says, pointing to the federal government’s eco-Energy for Renewable Power program.

He says Canada needs a dependable price on emissions to guarantee that investments in clean energy will pay off in the long run, regardless of any government subsidies or incentives.

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