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If necessity is the mother of invention, then Australia, with its extremes of climate and its vast geography, should provide plenty of inspiration. Certainly, this was the case for Aerofloat – the Sydney-based company behind a ground-breaking waste water treatment technology with huge global potential.
As Aerofloat co-founder and Managing Director Ray Anderson tells it, the company was founded in 2009 after Ray – a Sydney-based chemical engineer – was consulted to look into the treatment of waste water from houseboats on the Murray River.
“At that time, there’d been a very long drought, starting in the early 2000s through to 2007/8. There was enormous demand for water re-use, particularly for grey water.”
Anderson, along with his son Michael and daughter Katie – both engineers – saw this as a business opportunity, and set about developing an efficient, cost effective technology that would treat the grey water from houseboats and release it back into the river at a much higher quality.
What they came up was a new spin on dissolved air flotation technology – a design Ray believes is “significantly different” enough from its market competitors as to be disruptive.
Dissolved air flotation, or DAF, is a process used by industry to treat wastewater from industrial processes including food production, oil refining and chemical production.
It removes matter such as oil or solids by first flocculating the waste water, dissolving air in a proportion of the treated water under pressure, releasing the pressure, then mixing the streams together, which allows the microscopic air bubbles, created as a result of depressurisation, to float the oil and solids to the surface where they are removed by a skimming process.
But while most current technologies use a mechanical skimming device, the Aerofloat system uses an automatic hydraulic system integrated into the treatment tank.
“Traditional DAFs are quite a complex piece of machinery,” explains Anderson.
“They have separate coagulation and flocculation chambers, and they’re open topped, and stainless steel, with mechanical scrapers that scrape solid material into a disposal chute.
“The key benefit of our product is that we don’t have mechanical scrapers on top and bottom, making it mechanically simpler, with less moving parts and less need for maintenance… and more compact.”
Anderson says that in the Aerofloat system, solid waste goes into a separate thickening tank, which can then be used for composting, or other reuse applications.
All these unique design features – compact, energy efficient, odourless, mechanically simple and affordable – made Aerofloat’s DAF an instant hit for the houseboat market: the company now has more than 120 units on houseboats on the Murray River in South Australia and Lake Eildon in Victoria.
But with the success of the houseboat systems, another market opportunity opened up, for industrial waste water treatment.
Since the company’s largest houseboat model was the Aerofloat 13 (treating 13L/min), they applied for and won a Commercialisation Australia grant to develop a larger product – the Aerofloat 100 model (100L/min).
The impact of this was immediate, says Moor, as inquiries flooded in for larger systems due to the attractiveness of the DAF’s design.
This led to the development of the Aerofloat 200 (200L/min), which saw industrial users installing multiple systems and led to food manufacturers becoming Aerofloat’s main market.
Ray’s son Michael Anderson – an industrial designer – has since developed a new conceptual Modular DAF quite unique to the existing system but still incorporating the features of the Aerofloat DAF. The Modular DAF banks multiple Aerofloat 200 tanks together to increase the treatment capacity up to 800L/min.
For this, Aerofloat applied for and won an Accelerating Commercialisation grant for $250,000.
Currently, the company is preparing a proposal for a system to install 3x Aerofloat 800 systems for one installation.
And from here, the potential of the technology seems boundless.
“We are starting to get some positive feedback from our projects and this is leading to an increase in requests for quotations, particularly for commercial grey water applications and industrial wastewater,” Ray Anderson said.
And they’ve secured a distributor in New Zealand, APEX Environmental – a company with extensive experience with DAfs in the dairy industry – who are currently installing their first Aerofloat DAF project, with a second project on the production line.
“Our distributor in NZ saw us at an Australian exhibition, saw our DAF and realised the uniqueness of the product,” said Moor.
“They had their own technology, but saw our DAF as being somewhat unique, particularly for the smaller end of the market.”
Aerofloat also has an eye on the Chinese market – for manufacturing and distribution – and is looking to find a distributor in the EU, and in the United States; a market Anderson describes as “huge, compared to Australia.”
The big picture
But perhaps the biggest potential for the technology lies in developing markets, where, much like distributed renewable energy, decentralised waste water treatment could have an enormous impact on both remote and high-density communities where there is no reticulated sewerage, and thus significant pollution problems and public health issues.
“Rather than going to full blown reticulation centralised treatment plants, decentralised (waste water treatment ) plants like Aerofloat’s could be used to treat water and effluent,” says Ray Anderson, and make it suitable to carry out disinfection.
“That’s probably a little bit more challenging than it sounds, though,” adds Ray, who notes that key market facilitators like Development Banks tend to be more drawn towards the conventional way of doing things.
But this attitude could change quickly, with the help of the distributed energy models that are expected to be rolled out throughout developing nations, to meet growing demand and electrify communities that exist outside of the traditional grid.
In terms of distributed waste water treatment, Ray Anderson cites the Indian city of Mumbai as a perfect candidate for Aerofloat’s technology.
“Mumbai has a big focus on grey water treatment and re-use. They haven’t got the water to supply the emerging middle class… and much of the population don’t have proper wastewater treatment facilities,” he says.
The impact on a market like that could be huge, says Ray; saving money – on trucking in water and on disease and illness prevention – and saving water while improving the overall standard of living.
Getting down to business
But while Aerofloat chips away at getting a foothold in markets like India and China, it continues to strengthen its hold on the small to medium industrial markets in Australia and New Zealand, while also up-scaling its technology and fine-tuning its business model, using 3D design software and digital prototyping software provided by Autodesk.
“This makes our job of selling the technology a lot easier,” says Anderson. “It has helped us to become much more professional, in the way we design, having access to the software.”
Predominantly, Aerofloat’s technological focus is on developing larger capacity systems, while working within the limitations of the small-scale design.
“Because of the unique design of the DAF, you can’t just keep going infinitely bigger,” says Ray Anderson.
“The way we get around that is by using multiple tanks, with the biggest system a 800L/minute modular system design, with four or five tanks in parallel.”
Michael Anderson, whose job it has been to design the modular version of Aerofloat DAF technology, said it had been invaluable to have the Autodesk software for the whole team to be able to visualise and conceptalise product changes without physical prototyping.
“If you can imagine, a whole lot of pipes going everywhere,“ he said. “Until you actually do a detailed scaled model considering all of the other elements and details involved… you can’t go on and develop a physical prototype.”
The company got access to the software through Autodesk’s Entrepreneur Impact Program, which is geared at helping start-ups like Aerofloat think bigger without blowing out the bottom line.
“It’s saved time, money, everything,” Michael Anderson said.
“It gets you 95 per cent of the way there.”
But it’s not all about size. Indeed, in developing markets, like Mumbai, where waste water treatment technology will need to be retrofitted in the vast majority of cases, Aerofoat’s small-scale, modular and highly efficient technology is a perfect fit – with huge potential.
Aerofloat – aerofloat.com.au – is part of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program. The program supports clean technology innovators who are developing innovative solutions to solve the world’s environmental challenges. As part of the program, eligible companies receive world-class software to design, visualise, and simulate their ideas and accelerate their time to market through 3D Digital Prototyping. To apply for or learn more, visit www.autodesk.com.au