Water trends in wastewater for 2024: Digital transformation of WWTPs

In the current era of digital transformation, the uptake of new technologies has revolutionized numerous industries, and the wastewater treatment sector is no exception. As environmental concerns grow, wastewater management is also changing to deal with emerging challenges more efficiently and sustainably.   

We are at a critical juncture; the decisions and actions taken today about a scarce commodity such as water will shape its availability for years to come. Therefore, the implementation of new technologies in 2024 is particularly relevant as a lever for change. These technologies will help to improve the efficiency and quality of treated water.

The technological revolution in WWTPs

 1. Automation and control  

Automation and control have taken on a key role in industrial safety and optimization in the age of science and technology. This revolution is the confluence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT), creating a perfect match between technological innovation and efficiency in the wastewater treatment sector.

The integration of OT and IT enables real-time process supervision and regulation through control and monitoring systems, taking operational productivity to the next level. A greater variety of superior-quality sensors on the market is already creating large volumes of data on the quality of water and the efficiency of the processes involved in its treatment. This data includes detailed measurements of contaminant concentrations and physical, chemical and biological parameters. However, the real value of this information lies in knowing how to process and harness it. Larger numbers of monitored variables and the increase in on-site, cloud and edge-computing processing capacities have created robust, cutting-edge solutions based on complex algorithms. This revolution, which is already underway, will gather momentum over the next few years.

2. Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is playing a leading role in the digital transformation of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), and its uptake is expected to increase in 2024 and beyond. IoT devices, such as smart meters, are strategically placed at key locations in the plant system so they can collect relevant data in real time on a continuous basis. Increasingly, sensor information is transmitted to centralized platforms, where it is processed and transformed into high-value data, providing a detailed, real-time picture of the system’s status.

The IoT uses wireless technology to transmit monitoring signals, bringing greater control and supervision outside the plant’s facilities. Firstly, in the receiving stream of the discharge, controlling its quality and detecting illegal dumping. However, one of the most significant advances is real-time monitoring of the WWTP’s downstream basin, detecting illegal discharges into the sanitation network at an early stage and taking preventive action to mitigate the impact that these will have when they enter the WWTP. In addition, more effective investigations can be carried out to detect pollutant sources in the network.

In addition to improving the quality of the purification process, IoT technology is also driving more efficient management of the resources used in WWTPs, such as energy and reagents, by optimizing their use and reducing waste, thus lowering operating costs.

3. Big data and advanced analytics

The vast amounts of information generated by WWTPs can be harnessed through big data and advanced analytics techniques. Patterns, trends and correlations can be identified by collecting and analyzing historical and real-time data to optimize treatment processes.

Advanced analytics can also predict and preempt potential problems, making it easier to make proactive decisions and implement corrective measures before serious incidents occur. Big data is also being implemented in wastewater treatment plants to monitor the use of energy required to start up the wastewater treatment system, thus seeking to maximize cost savings and energy efficiency. Big data could also be harnessed for the next step in wastewater treatment: the reuse of treated water. Given all the advantages it has to offer, the use of big data and advanced analytics will be one of the main trends in 2024.

water trends in wastewater: digital transformation of wwtps

4. Advanced treatment and innovative technologies 

The technologies that are making inroads in the urban wastewater treatment sector, and which will be trending in 2024, include:  

    • Advanced oxidation. This is a process in which chemical reagents or free radicals are used to break down persistent organic pollutants in wastewater. This technology is especially effective for treating chemical compounds that are resistant to conventional treatment methods.
    • Ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis. High pressure is used to force water through membranes, leaving contaminants behind and producing purified water that is suitable for reuse in a variety of applications.
    • Photocatalytic oxidation. This is based on the use of a catalyst (titanium dioxide) that is activated by ultraviolet (UV) light to break down organic pollutants and microorganisms in wastewater. The UV light activates the catalyst, generating free radicals that oxidize and degrade the pollutants.
    • Ultrasonic reactors. These use high-frequency ultrasonic waves to treat wastewater. These waves create microbubbles that collapse violently, generating high temperatures and pressures that decompose contaminants and microorganisms, efficiently decontaminating water.
    • Naturally and genetically enhanced microorganisms. This technique centers on the use of naturally enhanced microorganisms to treat wastewater with refractory TOC/COD or specific pollutants. It consists of choosing microorganisms, improving variants and then feeding them into the treatment process.
    • Electrocoagulation and electrooxidation. This applies an electrical current to remove pollutants through coagulation and oxidation processes.

5. Renewable energies

Two of the key factors for efficient management of wastewater treatment plants are reducing their carbon footprint and lowering their operating costs. Therefore, improving energy efficiency has become one of the main objectives for WWTPs in 2024, based on four complementary strategies that will be increasingly used in the near future:

    • Monitoring and control of consumption in real time. This enables the development of new strategies to lower energy consumption, as well as to efficiently detect faults in real time.
    • Optimization of the biological reactors’ aeration system. This requires adjusting the amount and distribution of air in the biological reactors to optimize treatment process efficiency.
    • Optimization of biogas production, the volume of biogas generated and the strategy for its use. This increases the volume of biogas produced in the anaerobic digestion process and helps to apply strategies to manage its storage and use.
    • Installation of photovoltaic panels. Solar energy is used to produce electricity and cater for part of the WWTP’s energy needs.
     

6. Digital twins

A digital twin is a real-time virtual replica of a physical wastewater treatment plant, created from sensors and monitoring systems that collect data about its operations. This data is sent to software that processes and simulates the behavior of the plant, generating a constantly updated digital model. The digital twin monitors and analyzes the WWTP’s performance. Thus, potential problems can be preempted, and processes can be optimized. It also serves as a platform to test and simulate changes or improvements before physically implementing them, thus lowering costs and operational risks.

These virtual replicas in WWTPs can incorporate biokinetic mathematical models and self-calibration algorithms with machine learning to simulate the behavior of biological and physicochemical processes in real time, improving the plant’s performance and efficiency. Therefore, more and more utilities will be investing in the implementation of digital twins in WWTPs as a tool to optimize operations.

As a result, digital transformation and the adoption of new technologies are set to revolutionize WWTPs in 2024, improving their efficiency and sustainability and the quality of treated water. Automation, IoT, data analytics, advanced treatment technologies, energy efficiency and digital twins are just a few examples of how digitalization is revolutionizing this pivotal sector. As we move into the future, it is imperative to continue to explore and implement new technological solutions that ensure sustainable and efficient water management, thereby safeguarding our environment.

Idrica’s Water Technology Trends 2024 report provides a comprehensive list of trends for the industry, including the ones we will be seeing in digital transformation of WWTPs.

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