Innovation profile: OxyMem
OxyMem a clear winner when it comes to waste water
Managing director of OxyMem Wayne Byrne (front left) and Dr Eoin Syron, technical director of OxyMem, with the team of the UCD spin-out when celebrating the completion of the world’s largest membrane aerated biofilm reactor. Photograph: David O’Shea
In the welter of recent debate about how much water we all use and how much it’s going to cost us little if any attention has been paid to what happens to the water after we use it. And this is despite the fact that half of the water charges which most of us will pay will be for the treatment of wastewater in the nation’s sewage systems.
Wastewater treatment is a costly and energy intensive process yet the underlying technology has remained largely unchanged for the past century. It relies on a biological process which uses bacteria to break down the waste substances in the water. Oxygen is supplied to the bacteria through a forced aeration system which sends bubbles of compressed air through the bottom of the treatment tank; technology which has been in use since 1914. Typically less than 30 percent of the oxygen supplied is transferred to the wastewater resulting in enormous energy waste.
This energy waste is significant when considered at a global scale. Overall, it has been estimated that 3 percent of electricity generated worldwide is used in wastewater treatment and that between half and two thirds of this is being wasted.
The first significant advance on this process has been developed by UCD spinout company Oxymem which has developed a revolutionary new system which delivers the oxygen to the bacteria without the need for forced aeration. This has particular applications for countries across the developing world where electricity may be in short supply and it is also attracting the attention of leading utilities in Europe and North America.
The breakthrough earned the Innovation of the Year accolade for the company at this year’s Irish Times Innovation Awards and a number of other highly prestigious plaudits have been added since. These include the Water Innovation SME Award in Europe, the Overall Excellence in Intellectual Property Award at the Intellectual Property Awards 2014, and most recently has been included in the Global Top 30 for the Global Cleantech Cluster Association (GCCA) 2014 Later Stage Awards.
The prestigious Top 30 consists of mid- to late stage companies that originate from a variety of cleantech industries and have a proven track record in their home market, with the goal to expand internationally. The overall winner will be determined by a panel of investors and announced at the fifth annual CleanTech Investing Seminar in Lausanne, Switzerland on December 3 next.
“The CleanTech Top 30 is a very big deal for us”, says Oxymem managing director Wayne Byrne. “We get a speaking slot at the end and this is a great opportunity for us to put the company in front of clients and investors.”
The company, which is now based in Athlone, was co-founded in 2013 by Professor Eoin Casey and Dr Eoin Syron as spin-out from UCD’s School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering. Casey has been working on the development and commercialisation of the patented Membrane Aerated Biofilm Reactor (MABR) system since 2003. The Oxymem MABR obviates the requirement to pump bubbles of air into the water as the air is supplied directly to the wastewater microorganisms by means of a gas permeable membrane - effectively a series of tubes which sit in the tank containing the organisms and the wastewater. The oxygen can pass through the tube into the water but the water cannot pass back. The bacteria naturally migrate to the oxygen rich tube surfaces resulting in highly efficient 90 percent transfer rate.
Commercial success has accompanied the award wins and the company has also been successful on the fundraising front. “We have just finished an €800,000 private fundraising round”, says Byrne. “That brings to just over €1 million the amount we have raised since we spun out last year. That’s very significant. The reality is that when a business comes out of the university first it is only taking baby steps towards commercialisation at first and to get investors on board early on is a great achievement. We are also very pleased with the quality of the investors involved.”
The company also recently reached a significant product milestone with the delivery of a commercial scale treatment unit to Severn Trent Water in the UK. “This was a major event for us”, Byrne points out. “When we set up here in Athlone in January we had one employee and now we have 26 and are building the capacity to manufacture larger units all the time while demonstrating the smaller units. This is the first commercial scale unit that we can bring clients to visit on site and see working in the field. It was a great moment for all the team here to see the unit being loaded onto the back of the truck for deliver to England.”
The strategy is to continue building larger and larger units. “There will come a point when it won’t be feasible to manufacture the units here in Athlone for delivery to markets in the America and Asia”, he notes. “But that will be a good problem to have. Athlone will remain the manufacturing location for the European market. But as the installations get larger and larger it will not be practical to manufacture them here and transport them to Asia or North America.”
Demand continues to build for the new systems. “We have a solid order pipeline for the next six months and we are dealing with some of the biggest water companies in the world. Many of them see their dealings with us as commercially sensitive at this stage due to the nature of our technology. Closer to home we are dealing with Enisca in Northern Ireland and have worked with South Dublin County Council to provide a water treatment facility for the Arthurstown landfill. Irish Water are committed to taking a number of units for evaluation purposes in 2015. Irish Water have been very supportive and are very much committed to backing Irish innovation in this space.”
Units are already in operation in Spain and more will be in operation in Sweden and the US by the early part of 2015. “We need to get into as many reference sites as we can. It’s not a case of us chasing orders. We could sell everything that we produce into the UK market alone next year but we want to get a good spread globally. We will turn over €400 million this year and are targeting €2 million in 2015. If we are going to scale up aggressively over the next three to five years we will need to be in North America and Asia as well.”