Desalination plants and process industries create waste brine, threatening marine life. The Zero Brine project aims to reduce industrial saline wastewater streams by recovering and reusing minerals, water and metals from wastewater.
A recent UN-backed study published in the Elsevier journal Science of the Total Environment, estimates that brine production worldwide is about 142 million m3 per day, approximately 50% more than previous assessments.
Salt levels in the sea are increased by the disposal of the concentrated brine and that, when combined with an increase in sea temperatures, decreases oxygen levels which can affect aquatic life. The study recommended improved brine management strategies to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.
Circular economy The Zero Brine project is working to achieve both these aims, while harnessing high-quality, second generation resources, such as minerals and metals. It is one of the largest EU
Innovation Action projects within the Horizon 2020, the EU’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Overall, the EU has invested almost €1 billion in the circular economy to drive research forward and bring technical solutions to market.
The project has received close to €10 million of EU funding and is being co-ordinated by the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands. It includes 22 partners from research institutes, SMEs, construction companies, and end-users from 10 different countries. It began in June 2017 and will run until May 2021.
Rethinking brine The project’s premise is to think of brine as a resource rather than unwanted waste. Its intention is to close the loop between the saline wastewater generated by process industries by using both existing and new technologies to recover and reuse high quality end-products with good market value.
Zero Brine’s innovation manager, Dimitris Xevgenos, explained that the project wanted to highlight real examples where the circular economy is working well and identified specific industrial sectors as case studies for its pilot projects, involving all stakeholders either as project partners or as advisory board members.
“We are working with a wide range of partners to design and implement a solution that is relevant to them and that will help advance the project towards commercialisation. This is one of the main objectives of Zero Brine - to effectively demonstrate technologies at our pilot project sites in order to bring the innovations to the market.”
The way they are doing that is with four large-scale demonstration plants across Europe. The project has identified the sectors within the process industries that produce a lot of brine, selecting the most representative examples of these sectors which include companies from the water, textile, mining and chemical industries.
Demonstration plants The first of the two demonstration plants in the Botlek Industrial area of Rotterdam port will demonstrate the circular economy. Evides Industriewater, which operates a nearby demineralised water plant, currently uses a combination of ion exchange and membrane technology and discharges the brine into the local harbour.
The Zero Brine project will demonstrate an alternative method which uses a nano-filtration unit, a crystallisation unit, an evaporator and a combination of waste heat to eliminate brine effluent and recover high purity magnesium.
Another large-scale demonstration plant is in Zaragoza, Spain, where the project is working with Industrias Químicas del Ebro S.A. (IQE), an industrial chemical group and producer of soluble silicas, to recover water, sodium sulphate, waste heat and alkalis.
In Poland, the team is working alongside the Silesian University of Technology at a coal mine to to demonstrate circular economy principles to decrease its energy consumption by 50% and recover valuable raw materials such as concentrated brine. Finally, in Turkey, a brine treatment system is being developed for the textile industry with the Tubitak Marmara Research Centre to recover concentrated salt solutions for reuse in the textile dyeing process baths.
Online Brine Platform In addition to the pilot plants, the Zero Brine project has developed the Online Brine Platform (OBP), an interactive web service connecting brine owners with mineral and water users and technology providers to promote the reuse of secondary raw materials and water.
Through the OBP, brine effluents are mapped alongside raw materials (minerals) and water streams used by process industries and effective brine treatment technology providers and waste heat streams.
The OBP will establish a network of interested stakeholders who can contact prospective business partners via an online forum. It also identifies potential business matches based on user profiles. In addition, a dedicated web portal offers information specific to saline wastewater management and reuse of secondary raw materials.
Registered users will have access to information on the available quantities and qualities of saline wastewater, recovered materials and resources needed by the end users, as well as the location and proximity to industrial sites. In addition, Brine Excellence Centres will be developed within partner organisations in the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Poland and Spain to give end-users the opportunity to test and develop customised and validated brine treatment solutions.
Potential benefits Zero Brine focuses on the processing sectors because, according to Eurostat, this sector includes many different economic activities performed by 2.1 million enterprises in Europe. Although their industries may be very different, they all have something in common, which is that they all use water in their operations, which eventually becomes wastewater. In many cases this is brine effluent.
Zero Brine is also talking to stakeholders outside Europe, such as the coal mining sector in South Africa and the chemical industry in China. In China many chemical plants have been forced to close because they are producing too much brine and they need help to address their wastewater issues.
The New Environmental Law, which came into force in January 2015 in China, has put significant pressure on many industrial plants, so solutions are needed worldwide, not just in Europe.
Dimitris Xevgenos says there is a lot of work to do. According to the European Database, in 2016 a total of 578 facilities released around 16 million tons of chloride in Europe, so the need for circular economy models has never been more pressing.
The main obstacle the project faces is persuading companies that switching to a circular economy is both technically possible and economically viable, requiring a substantial change of mind-set, not just from manufacturers but from investors too. He also believes that EU regulation about the recovery of materials from waste and wastewater streams needs to be addressed to support circular economy business models.
However, he believes policies are moving in the right direction and cites the fact that the EU has not only invested almost €1 billion to drive research forward and bring technologies to market, but it is promoting the circular economy outside of Europe too, proving its commitment to a more sustainable future for industries that produce brine.