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Water Today Title April 21, 2024
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Treatment And Reuse Of Toxic Industrial Wastewater

Award-winning Seattle start-up Membrion focuses on recovering wastewater from “impossible” sources

“Many facilities with highly acidic and toxic concentrated metals streams truck their wastewater off site for disposal or incineration at a remote location. This method costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
There is a better option.”

-- Greg Newbloom CEO & Founder Membrion

Interview with Greg Newbloom

By Suzanne Forcese

WT: Please introduce yourself to our viewers and give us an overview of Membrion.

Newbloom: I am the founder and CEO of Membrion, a clean tech startup focused on enabling circularity of the world’s most critical resources. Membrion makes electro-ceramic desalination (ECD) membranes that enable recycling of wastewater from harsh industrial processes as well as up concentration of valuable metals and minerals that can be valorized.

WT: You have an interesting story about a package of beef jerky. Tell us about the ‘Eureka!’ moment that led to the birth of Membrion.

Newbloom: Membrion found the solution to clean water, inexpensive batteries and cheaper pharmaceuticals hiding in the bottom of a beef jerky package.

During my postdoc in chemical engineering at the University of Washington, we were trying to solve a problem that exists for membranes used in batteries.

We were trying to create a filter for molecules. We started looking around for materials with tiny holes and came across silica gel, the material you find in the bottom of a beef jerky package.

It turns out this material is good at pulling moisture out of the environment because it has molecule-sized holes that hold onto water.

We thought, what if we could make a sheet out of this material and use those tiny holes to filter things? It turns out, it is not only possible, but very efficient — and that’s how Membrion was born.

The batteries were extremely acidic and oxidizing and so only one type of membrane was compatible. We were trying to find a better alternative and we ended up with a ceramic membrane.

WT: What led you to water treatment?

Newbloom: After founding Membrion, we realized that membranes in water treatment had the same problem but on a much larger scale. In fact, we learned that a lot of industrial wastewaters are so complex that in many cases facilities will truck it off-site for 3rd party incineration.

I am sympathetic to the fact that, until now, there has not been an alternative, but the idea of trucking hazardous waste through our communities only for it to ultimately end up boiled and/or in a landfill is unacceptable.

It is high costs, stacked on top of environmental risks and combined with major CO2 emissions. It is a problem that we can solve and is worth solving.

WT: Membrion has received many awards and recognitions. The most recent have been a recognition on the list of TIME’s ‘America's Top GreenTechCompanies’: as a top sustainability -focus based company based on your positive environmental impact, financial strength, and innovation. Also, you have been named one of the Ten Top Innovators by Uplink. Congratulations!

Newbloom: We are thrilled! These awards acknowledge the thoughtful work of our team, all of whom are super smart and innovative, and are developing solutions which are now proven to resolve some of the biggest wastewater challenges, all while preserving natural resources. We are tenacious in our quest for creating reliable solutions that preserve our environment while delivering strong ROI to clients. Everyone wins.

As a team, our mission is to create circularity of the world’s most critical resources. Water is certainly a part of that picture, but being able to recycle and re-use the metallic contaminants in water is equally as important to us. I am very lucky to have such a brilliant and diverse team driving our mission forward each day!

WT: You have said, "If sustainability was simple, cheap & low-risk – it would be irresistible." -- Please elaborate on your statement.

Newbloom: It is the “pick two” concept. What we have found is that most industrial facilities and engineers really want to implement more sustainable solutions. But the practical reality is that often it can cost a lot of money and if it does not work – someone is going to lose their job. All that does is slow things down.

At Membrion, we are committed to finding a path moving towards simple, cost-effective, and low risk solutions. Often, we accomplish this with a water treatment as a service program. We enable a facility to completely, or mostly, stop trucking their wastewater and we finance the capital equipment.

That means that the facility is able to use the best technology, but they only pay for it if it is successful. The technology delivers impressive sustainability results, but it is the business model that makes it easy for facilities to say yes.

 WT: What are the issues with heavy metal wastewater? Have there been solutions in the past?

Newbloom: One of the numerous challenges posed by metal wastewater streams is that they cannot be simply sent to sewers due to the high concentrations of metals which exceed environmental discharge limits. Traditional treatment and disposal options for these streams are limited, and Membrion’s team guides industrial clients through a novel approach, from analysis to resolution.

In the past, concentrated metals streams (e.g., copper, nickel, arsenic), which are highly acidic and toxic, were typically trucked offsite for disposal/incineration at a remote location, which costs facilities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. More dilute metal streams, also highly acidic, were typically treated with single use conventional selective ion exchange resins. The concentration of metals in wastewater dictates how often the resins will require replacement with fresh resin beds. Exhausted resin beds are trucked off site for either disposal or regeneration before they can be used again. This process is expensive and results in massive operational costs each year. These are not really solutions, and they also yield climate issues.

WT: Please describe the Membrion technology.

Newbloom: Membrion technology takes wastewater and flows it into a membrane module. Inside that module are our patented ceramic desalination membranes. Unlike most membrane modules, we do not use pressure to drive the separation process. Instead, we use a voltage which draws the ions across the membrane into a concentrate stream – so the ions move and the water stays behind. This allows us to achieve very high amounts of clean water (up to 98% clean water recovered) after the ions are removed.

Membrion’s unique electro-ceramic desalination membranes excel in highly acidic and oxidizing wastewater streams, thanks to their amorphous silica structure. Our membranes are proven to have significant advantages in treating previously untreatable streams which helps our customers see significant cost savings by reducing the trucking of wastewater offsite or by reducing the contaminant loading on the conventional ion exchange beds. This can make them last longer before they are fully exhausted.

Incorporating Membrion’s ceramic ion exchange technology to treat those challenging wastewater streams typically yields ROI to customers in less than 2 years and in some cases the ROI is less than a year.

Consider an EV battery manufacturer with a lithium wastewater stream that is currently being trucked off site. After conducting a pilot study, Membrion was able to reduce the volume of trucking by 92% and reduce the concentration of lithium by 90 - 92%.

Utilizing Membrion’s technology for this stream yields < 13 months return on investment to the customer.

A different pilot study yielded a customer with a concentrated copper stream that was currently being trucked off site towards a reduction of trucking volume by 80% and Cu concentration reduction by 99%. This meant < 2 years return on investment to the customer.

WT: Why ceramic membranes?

Newbloom: Ceramic materials are well known to be extremely durable, especially in harsh chemical environments. Additionally, by using an inexpensive and readily available compound (sand) to create our patented membranes, we can cost-efficiently manufacture membranes.

WT: What are the advantages of the Membrion system? How is your technology superior to other methods?

Newbloom: Membrion’s solution is fully customizable and easy to integrate into existing water filtration systems. It selectively removes salts, metals, and minerals from industrial wastewater that contains an ultra-low pH, sealants, foulants, particles, oxidizers, and solvents. Membrion enables recovery of wastewater in environments no other company can penetrate. It is a solution for expanding industrial capacity at low cost.

WT: What are the applications for your system?

Newbloom: Many industrial facilities benefit from Membrion solutions, including semiconductor manufacturing, electroplating, mining, battery manufacturing, battery recycling, and consumer goods and beauty products.

Our internal motto is “achieve the impossible”. Nearly every project we tackle is something that a client is extremely skeptical of. Often, we are showing them for the very first time that there is another (better) way to deal with their extremely hazardous waste.

An example of this is copper wastewater in the semiconductor industry. These streams often are extremely acidic & oxidizing and contain particles, foulants, & chelators. Only one of those things would make a typical desalination membrane impossible to use. We are able to handle them all at the same time, which delivers a ton of value to the end user.

WT: What are the steps involved with a facility partnering with you in wastewater treatment?

Newbloom: There are four basic steps. This process is designed with the intention to make it accessible and simple to launch.

First is an assessment, in which the client sends water quality data and treatment target. Membrion runs predictive performance and cost analysis to see if we have the right solution.

Next comes a feasibility assessment, where the first stream assessed is free. In the feasibility phase, we treat up to 10 gallons of water using ECD, provide third party analysis, and determine if treatment outcomes are possible.

Third is the demonstration phase, where clearly defined KPIs are used to treat a slipstream (1-10 GPM) at your site for 4+ weeks to de-risk the full commercial installation.

The final phase is implementation, where a custom-built ECD system, optimized for peak performance, is installed at your facility. Here the full value will be unlocked to expand capacity and safely recycle wastewater streams.

WT: Moving forward...what’s next?

Newbloom:  Membrion is getting our first couple full commercial systems online and have a bunch more that are following. It is an extremely exciting time for the company.

For us, it is all about relationships. We are continuing to build partnerships with OEMs and integrators as well as deploy commercial systems with end users. We are hiring to keep up with demand and we are growing rapidly to keep investors happy. Focusing on relationships first helps us to balance the demands of these, occasionally, competing groups.


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