The drinking-water pipe network in the United States extends more than 700,000 miles — four times the length of the national highway system. Much of the infrastructure is more than 100 years old.
It is estimated by the American Water Works Association that U.S. water utilities will need to invest $250 billion over the next 30 years to replace the aging pipes, many of which leak.
That typically involves digging up streets, which is costly. Enter a new platelet technology being tested by Yorkshire Water in the UK. It was developed by a company called Brinker, which was spun off from the University of Aberdeen. (It’s estimated that about a third of London’s drinking water is lost through leaking pipes.)
The technology is already used by the natural gas and oil industries to plug holes in leaky water pipes used to increase the pressure for extraction. Brinker says the technology’s parameters are: pressures from 2 to over 500 bars; and holes in pipes from 0.3mm to 50mm in diameter. The company says holes that big have been successfully sealed.
The platelet technology works the same way blood platelets seal a bleeding wound. They work under pressure, traveling inside a water pipe to seal the leak from within.
The platelets are composed of materials that have passed stringent tests to ensure they don’t pose a risk to people who drink them. Testing is currently underway and the expectation is to have the technology in widespread commercial use in 2010.
What’s the spending outlook this year and next for water technologies like Brinker’s? A recent survey conducted by Changewave Research revealed the recession is weighing heavily on projected spending for water projects.
Desalination technology purchases are expected to be down by nearly 33 percent over the next 12 months, while long-term investment in infrastructure repair and replacement for pipes is holding steady or expected to attract more spending than any other water category over the next two years.
What’s more, wastewater treatment and water filtration are expected to get a bump in spending from the residual effect of water-infrastructure spending. Changewave Research’s survey also found that the company best positioned to benefit in the water industry is General Electric.
With the expected steady investment in water-pipe replacement and repair infrastructure, the upside of Brinker’s platelet technology looks promising for a lot of leaky municipal water systems.
Another interesting water technology comes from Tongji University in Shanghai where researchers worked with Wei-xian Zhang, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Lehigh University and recently completed a multiyear project studying how iron can be used to detoxify pollutants in industrial wastewater.
The iron, called zero valent iron because it is not oxidized, was obtained in the form of shavings or turnings from local metal-processing shops for less than 15 cents a pound.
Following a pilot test of the iron-detox approach two years ago, the Shanghai government approved a grant to construct a full-scale treatment reactor in the Taopu district. It can process almost 16 million gallons a day of wastewater. Prior to the experiment, few people believed scrap iron could be used to clean water. –Lee Bruno