Let the bugs do your dirty work

Richard Ambrose of ABC Environmental offers SMEs a step-by-step guide to managing the implementation of environmental biotechnology.

Environmental biotechnology is increasingly becoming a standard approach for the management and treatment of industrial pollution. It can be applied for the treatment of industrial effluents, air emissions and contaminated land, as well as growing areas such as waste management (composting), and cleaning and monitoring (biosensors). As more companies are realising the technical and commercial benefits of environmental biotechnology, the potential application areas for the successful implementation are continuing to grow.

This article therefore focuses on the assessment, uptake and implementation of environmental biotechnology in order for companies to select the most suitable technology options, while implementing a new process or product to an existing manufacturing or processing operation. Of course this advice can be applied to all potential technology options, though biotechnology is one option that should not be overlooked, as it can provide genuine cost and technical advantages.

Getting started

Within any project it is essential that time is provided for both assessment of the options and the implementation of the one selected. It is vital that factual and technical information is assessed. This will be the time to assess perceived risks, eliminate misconceptions and understand the technology and how it may practically apply within individual organisations. Therefore it is essential to plan the project.

For instance if the issue being addressed is the treatment of process gaseous emissions, time must be given for the data assessment, stack monitoring to form a model of the emissions, wastes, and volumes before any technology assessment can be started. It is advisable to define existing operations and its components by monitoring and auditing, and process parameters must be defined, for instance, batch frequency, duration, shutdowns, resource mass balance of inputs versus outputs, and process cause and effects, as in keeping with any quality or environmental management system. Therefore data collection is vital in order to define the issue to be addressed.

The assessment to utilise biotechnology will be made on a number of criteria that will differ from company to company. However, typically companies will consider CAPEX, OPEX and the total project costs including down time, internal resource requirements and long-term cost benefits. Other criteria include local conditions, available services, material availability, time and scale.

Each organisation should ideally have an individual that is involved with the entire process from assessment, selection and purchasing, down to implementation. As the main point of contact this person can canvass the relevant stakeholders for their individual requirements, concerns and views and can be the main spokesperson when dealing with the environmental biotechnology supplier. This person can also promote the issue through trade associations and internal awareness raising. One such company coordinator took the opportunity to use the utilisation of biotechnology as a thesis for a formal qualification and thoroughly researched the subject on the back of the project.

During the early stages it is advisable to use the correct terminology and define terms. With regard to microbial terminology, the phrase 'bugs' can be seen as a negative term. One company that chose a biological plant to treat VOC emissions initially thought the system would contain a mass population of maggots and worms. It is also necessary to address early reservations and misconceptions, for instance, when discussing biotechnology driven by bacteria and fungi, the concept of bacteria or microorganisms can give rise to concerns of disease and public health. Biotechnology must be seen and assessed in context that different organisms have their individual niches and correctly applied biotechnology comes without such risk.

One perception held by some is that biological systems are fragile and not robust enough. In these instances, all concerns should be listed in order so the design of the plant or process addresses the perceived risks and minimises the actual risks. Scale can be a concern, though it should be remembered, an environmental biotechnology process will require the same components to operate and control regardless of scale. Processes scale up and scale down and can be configured to fit into available areas.

It is also an appropriate time to review any available case study information. Technical and applications-based literature can be gained from the DTI's Bio-Wise website - www.biowise.org.uk. The literature focuses on full scale industrial and environmental biotechnology and the experiences gained by companies who have made the choice to integrate biotechnology into existing operations.

It is possible that through business networks a bad case study or failed project may be known and talked about. In these situations it may be worth doing some investigation to discover the truth about the project and gain details as it may not have been a technical failure, but a contractual, commercial, installation, or operational issue. Also, it may be that you have not heard the full story or final outcome.

It must be remembered that over the last ten years biotechnology has moved on in leaps and bounds and greater process understanding and application experience has led to far greater control, even wider applications and successes. Old views today may simply not be true or relevant within the current state of commercially available environmental biotechnology.

As an individual, you may be aware that a competitor has already chosen an alternative to biotechnology and you might think you should follow suit. But do not be afraid to be the first to adopt environmental biotechnology and potentially lead your industry. With a constructive approach to a technology or process option you should end with a plant or process most suitable to you, regardless of what your competitors are doing. Consider environmental biotechnology as an alternative method of treatment, with the same outcome. This is vital to bear in mind as several industrial sectors or individuals may have historical/traditional ways of treating pollution, and environmental biotechnology may seem a break from convention.

Finally during the initial stages, consider the future. Discuss future scenarios, future market trends and production projections. Therefore environmental biotechnology suppliers can consider these in the original design and pre-empt future long-term plant requirements. Control systems can also be provided to suit the exact process conditions and prevent unsuitable conditions from developing. The application of environmental biotechnology should also be considered in the light of market trends and therefore future applications. For instance, some sectors may be looking to replace certain material use and its replacement may be more suitable for a biotech option. Environmental solutions may be applied to materials of increasing solubility, or a decline in the use of certain materials with low biodegradation characteristics.

Assessing options

Initially it is necessary to compile a short list of suppliers, and a potential source for this is the Bio-Wise suppliers database. Trade associations and the regional business link or environmental business groups may be aware of suitable suppliers. As well as the immediate scope of supply and installation of the environmental biotechnology, during selection it may be worth considering whether the supplier is also willing to meet the local authority or Environment Agency and provide necessary information to other relevant stakeholders.

It is also advisable to enquire if the potential supplier will allow the opportunity to discuss experiences with other end users and provide long-term support and a willingness to train your plant and process operators, if required. The assessment of options is principally focussed on lower costs and risks. It is recommended that all the information you need from a supplier is detailed beforehand, in order that it will enable a clear decision of whether to purchase or not. In order to assess the options it is vital that the technical information and data is provided to the environmental biotechnology supplier in order for a suitable process option to be designed, priced and proposed. Once initial budget quotations have been received and examined, this will be the time to arrange site viewings. It is suggested that, if possible, a plant or site viewing is very rewarding to appreciate the process at full scale or in a commercial context. Also the supplier should consider and discuss the training needs, servicing and maintenance requirements and provide potential troubleshooting advice where necessary.

Supplier presentations are recommended, outlining the fundamental principles behind the environmental technology. The agenda could be set by you as the future end user and the content adjusted according to your individual requirements. It is useful for others to attend and raise opinions and input that could affect the process. Consider internal information dissemination of the project in order that people are made aware of the process or plant and its purpose.

Laboratory feasibility or pilot plant trials are sometimes required, though these are only necessary if a technical risk cannot be removed or if the project would benefit commercially by removing engineering contingencies. List all concerns and do not be afraid to ask, and if the supplier hasn't the answer this may require a phased approach to the project, to include a smaller scale technical assessment.

Beyond implementation

When it is applied correctly, environmental biotechnology works - reliably, consistently and at low cost. Its wide applications can provide the means to be environmentally compliant through the treatment and reduction of wastes and emissions, lower operating costs, improved health and safety and provides raw material savings.

It is now widely accepted as an approach which can have commercial advantages for customers. For example, some companies with formal or accredited environmental management systems will review the activities and procedures of their supply chain and environmental biotechnology can be looked upon favourably. Biotechnology and its benefits can also be a positive feature of an environmental management report. These examples demonstrate that other companies have taken the right step in implementing a biotechnology. Undoubtedly they would have gone through a period of assessment and have realised the benefits of their decision. This clearly shows how diverse the applications of biotechnology are.

Typically once the purchasing decision is made and a project commences the baton is handed to a person or team who will be directly responsible for the day-to-day or weekly operation of the environmental biotechnology. The project period of installation, commissioning and biocommissioning is a perfect opportunity for the company to get a hands-on approach and increase their understanding of the process and its mechanics.

The timetable and procedures for handover needs to be previously agreed with the supplier as independent monitoring and witness testing may be required. Training of operators, complete with troubleshooting advice and a defined maintenance program needs to be provided. It's also vital that operators read the operation and service manuals and refer to these at all times. It is advisable to maintain the record keeping of plant performance and process adjustments, especially if the change of shifts results in the change of operator. If an operator understands the process they will be more inclined to monitor and take interest in its performance. Relay this information back to the supplier and develop the end user/supplier relationship.

This whole process, from assessment to handover, should be made easier if the end user and supplier of the biotechnology are clear what the other party wants from the project. Fundamentally, if companies understand the process they are more likely to purchase it. A successfully implemented biotechnology can represent a chosen option that the end user company can publicise and be proud to talk about. New environmental biotechnology applications provide an opportunity for the end user to become a recognised leader within their sector as well as a point of entry into a new market for the supplier. In these instances a satisfied end user is a very powerful ally to a supplier during future contract negotiations with other potential end users.



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