At the beginning of 2017 Canadian Chemical News offered an introduction to Forward Water, a start-up company that was spun off from research led by Philip Jessop, a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Queen’s University. He had devised a “switchable” solvent whose solubility can be altered with the addition of CO2, which can make the energy intensive process of forward osmosis much more efficient for extracting material from a wastewater stream. The result should deliver significant cost savings and greenhouse gas reductions for each cubic metre of water treated at disposal sites, where the final product could be re-used for some applications.

The scale of Forward Water’s process has grown steadily, moving from Jessop’s laboratory to a facility at GreenCentre Canada in Kingston, then a pilot plant hosted by Xerox Canada at its facility in Mississauga. With additional funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and Alberta Innovates, the company has now reached a major milestone with this summer’s launch of a demonstration site in Airdrie, Alberta, which will process wastewater at a rate of 15 m3/day.

According to CEO Howie Honeyman, the operation of this plant should provide a definitive demonstration of commercial viability and attract clients who will want to incorporate this technology into their own wastewater treatment operations. While the closest and most obvious of those prospective customers will be in Alberta’s oil patch, he says the market could be much more diverse.

“This is a universal problem in terms of industrial production,” he explains, pointing to current discussions between Forward Water and a Maritime firm that every year transfers millions of cubic metres of different kinds of liquid material from one ship to another.

Jessop adds that such system could also find important uses in the country’s remote northern communities, many of which rely on reverse osmosis for their drinking water. Organic material in the flow routinely fouls the membranes used in this approach, but Forward Water’s system would almost entirely eliminate that problem. It can also reduce the need for harsh disinfectants, since the resulting water is much cleaner and easier to treat.

Honeyman says the Alberta plant has been necessarily overbuilt in order to ensure that it can demonstrate some of these different uses, including refinery-based water, flow-back water, and process water from fracking.

“We’re going to learn that we can de-risk the capital expense very quickly by operating this piece of equipment and showing that we can tune it in a certain way to eliminate a lot of the equipment that we have on board,” he concludes.