In today's cash-strapped shipping industry, two linked issues have become the key talking points for shipowners and operators the world over - cutting costs and reducing environmental impact.
A great deal of research is currently going into new eco-efficient and fuel-saving ship propulsion designs, from more traditional innovations and refinements like hybrid and dual-fuel engines to more radical measures like the SkySails system of wind-based auxiliary propulsion. These iterative and disruptive advances are intended to shelter operators' bottom lines as fuel prices rise, as well as cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of increasingly strict international controls.
A new innovation project stewarded by recently-merged classification society DNV GL is taking an entirely different approach to shipping and the environment. Aqua Recovery, a concept that was pitched to DNV GL by Norwegian sustainability firm EnviroNor in March 2013, involves giving phased-out tanker vessels a second life as floating wastewater treatment plants.
The project, which has received support and input from WWF Norway and the Norwegian Red Cross, has produced concepts for three different vessel-based water treatment plants, which could be deployed offshore in regions where land for traditional facilities is scarce or if existing facilities are undergoing repair or upgrade. The concepts cover larger vessels treating water for reuse in irrigation or industry, as well as a smaller barge-type vessel that could treat river water to supply communities with clean drinking water.
According to DNV GL, the Aqua Recovery model could extend a tanker's life cycle by 20 years, and a repurposed product tanker could treat the wastewater from a city of 250,000 people. DNV GL project manager Petter Andersen discusses the potential of the project and the need for a concrete business model leading up to a target of having a water treatment vessel in active development by the end of 2014.
Chris Lo: Could you tell me about the origins of the Aqua Recovery project?
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Petter Andersen: EnviroNor approached DNV with this idea, as we are heavily involved in shipping and have a lot of knowledge around ships. Our CEO, Henrik Madsen, liked the idea, and he decided that we would run one of our so-called Extraordinary Innovation projects, looking into if it's really a good idea and can it be done in the first place.
The second part was how it can be improved, and then we went through what we call technology qualification. So it was a phase to see if it is feasible, and if yes, how can it be done? We ran it through one of our innovation projects to try to take the idea from just the concept into something that is more of a concept design.
CL: What role do you see these wastewater treatment vessels playing, and what could they offer that is not possible with onshore facilities?
PA: When we did the study we connected with a lot of expertise within the water area around the world, and we learned that while yes, this concept is fascinating and can be applicable, it's a little bit difficult to say exactly what type and what size [of vessel] would be most relevant. It's really dependent on the local area, the depth of the sea, the local need. Is there infrastructure ashore for collecting wastewater?
So based on that we made some different applications to illustrate how the principle of having a floating treatment plant could work. In our report we outlined three different applications. We're not saying 'This is the good one and this is the least good one.' We go out and we talk about these applications in order to attract interest in the market. Of course, there are some elements that make it more or less relevant for specific locations. There must be a need, sure. Particularly in the areas where there is insufficient capacity for treatment of wastewater ashore, maybe during the upgrade or repair of an onshore treatment facility or more as a permanent solution.
And then you asked about the benefits of having it floating. There are definitely some benefits around that. It's flexible; it can serve different locations during its lifetime, for example, as I mentioned, during repair or upgrading ashore. It can be built in a local country, which could make the investment and the lifecycle cost beneficial compared to a land-based treatment plant, which basically has to be built at the location. It can serve areas where there is insufficient space ashore, for example in very highly populated areas, and of course if there is space but the available land is very expensive, that is also a positively contributing factor. And if we talk about a solution that we have called the Water Factory, that's a smaller solution that can move up rivers and serve different locations. There's also an element that it's converting a ship into a water treatment plant, which we believe can happen much quicker than building a big and complex system ashore, which often takes many years.
CL: Presumably vessel-based treatment plants could also provide water support in emergencies?
PA: Yes, definitely. We have discussed this type of emergency vessel. We decided that we will not present that as one of the solutions, but that does not mean that this can't also be a solution in one way or the other - having smaller units that can come in and supply water in a flood situation or after a hurricane. There are definitely many applications there as well. But we're also trying to think about the economical aspect of it. Running ships costs money so there has to be a business case there as well. We tried to bring in that element when we presented our solutions.
CL: Could you explain the three concepts you've presented - the Reliever, the Changemaker and the Water Factory - and the vessels that would be most suitable for them?
PA: In our study we took a sample vessel of around 40,000dwt, because there are quite a number of these available on the second-hand market. We also looked at taking a VLCC, a very large crude oil carrier of 300,000dwt, and making a factory out of that. That's also technically feasible, but it's a huge project and we don't really think that will be the first project, going for the world's largest. So we scaled it down to a smaller vessel.
The Reliever is a flexible ship; it treats wastewater and discharges it into the sea like a modern treatment facility ashore. You prevent damage to the environment from dirty wastewater. It can come in and it can stay for 1-3 years while the local area is upgrading an onshore plant, then leave to serve a different location that may have the same need. It's a flexible, plug-and-play solution, a temporary means of preventing pollution to the environment.
Then we have the Changemaker, which is introducing another level of treatment technology. It enables wastewater to be treated to a standard that can be used for irrigation of land, and different industrial purposes. We thought of that as a more permanent solution. It can also discharge water into the sea, but it's a flexible solution depending on local needs. That can be anchored outside the coast quite far away as long as it's in sheltered waters, and supply a community with fresh water for as long as the lifetime of this plant, which we have said is around 20 years, minimum.
And then there's the Water Factory, which produces drinking water, not from dirty wastewater but from river water. River water is treated and clean drinking water can be supplied to local communities. So those are the three different routes that we spent most of our efforts on. They're based on the same type of technology and principles, just put together in different ways.
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CL: How far down the road is DNV GL and its partners to actually making one of these concepts a reality?
PA: Since January, we have been working the second phase of the project, and we have a target to see one project realised this year. By 'realised', I mean to have a contract in place - for a specific location, for building and operating a floating wastewater treatment plant. We are working towards that and talking to many different stakeholders in the industry. We are speaking with different embassies to try and reach compacts with local governments in different countries. We've had dialogue with quite a number of different stakeholders worldwide.
In our current work we have had contact and received interest from Pakistan, India and Indonesia to mention a few. We have been speaking to different technology providers and have established connections to world-leading experts and competence within the water segment.
CL: What will be the biggest challenges in implementing this idea?
PA: We do not think it will be related to technology; our study has proven that designing and building a floating wastewater treatment plant is technically feasible. Something that has to be established is the business model, the economics behind having a floating unit built. You need someone to operate it, it needs to be connected to the city, and political elements in local areas could be slowing down these processes. So it's not really the technology or building this, it's more getting through all the steps - building the vessel and getting it placed in a location is more related to the political aspect of realising this, and also finding the right business model. Someone has to take the first step
CL: The project also involves the recycling of disused tankers or other vessels - what are the benefits of giving a new role to ships at the end of their service lives?
PA: Well, it's related to the fact that you don't have to scrap the vessel and you could reuse it for 20 or more years. So there's a profound environmental benefit from extending the lifetime of the vessel. That can also have a positive financial element, in terms of reusing a vessel that has already been paid down. For a shipowner, that could also mean that the vessel could have a higher value - if it's in good condition, it could be a relevant candidate for this type of project, and that could be an economical benefit of extending the lifetime of the vessel as well. DNV GL's purpose is to safeguard life, property and the environment and we see great potential in local solutions for treatment of wastewater offshore as a contribution to a more sustainable future.