When Greg Ryan and his son came up with the technology to pasteurize water, they didn't know they would be leading the most important and lucrative subsector of the water industry.
Perhaps no one understands the value of water better than a farmer. Most people regard water as a limitless resource, but farmers are all too familiar with its limits. So it’s fitting, then, that one of the most innovative technologies to recently enter the world of water conservation was invented not by a highly trained engineer but by a farmer with a knack for ingenuity.
In 2007, Greg Ryan, a farmer and cattle rancher for most of his life, founded the San Leandro, California–based Pasteurization Technology Group with his son Greg Ryan Jr., PTG's current CEO. The company’s patented technology enables wastewater treatment plants to disinfect water without the use of chlorine or other chemicals, while creating enough renewable energy to power the entire facility in the process. In the water industry, which has experienced 15% revenue growth since 2007, this so-called water-energy nexus is arguably the most important and lucrative subsector. According to Scott Bryan, COO of the water start-up incubator ImagineH20, “There’s a willingness to pay for innovations that will help you conserve water and create energy.”
Greg Sr. first became acquainted with the connection between water and energy on his cattle ranch, where he built himself a one-megawatt hydroelectric plant. It used water from a creek to spin a turbine and generate energy for the ranch. Years later, around 2003, the idea for a much larger scale invention began to percolate. Wastewater treatment facilities, Ryan realized, typically use either chemicals like chlorine or energy-sucking technology like UV light to disinfect water. “In my day, when our water was bad, the government told us to boil it,” the 76-year-old says. Boiling or pasteurizing the water, he thought, would be a much cleaner and less expensive way to disinfect wastewater. Of course, to do that, you would need lots of heat, and what better way to produce heat than by generating energy?
“When you get something like this in your mind, you can’t let it go,” Ryan says. “I just kept working on it, and pretty soon it evolved into something more significant than I ever thought it would.”
The technology is simple, but novel. Wastewater treatment facilities separate solid waste from water, and when the waste gets degraded, it gives off a gas. PTG’s technology uses that gas to fuel a turbine and generate power for the entire facility. The turbine creates hot exhaust, which is used to heat-pasteurize the untreated water. But the magic really happens when the disinfected water leaves the plant. It runs through a two-way tunnel of sorts, past the untreated water on its way to get pasteurized. Along the way, the heat from the disinfected water gets transferred to the untreated water. This preheating step is crucial, because it cuts down on the energy required to pasteurize the water. That allows PTG to achieve volume and disinfect some 200 million gallons of water a day.
Ryan brought the idea to his son, who had an M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “My dad’s one of these crazy-idea guys that the world needs. I’m more block and tackle,” says Greg Jr. “I tried my best to poke holes in the idea, and when I couldn’t anymore, that’s when I realized we had something big here.”
In 2004, they attended a wastewater trade show, which Greg Jr. refers to as “probably the least sexy place on Earth.” They had nothing but a sketch of how the technology would work, but they still managed to catch the eye of Los Angeles County Sanitation. In 2006, they began building a pilot project for Los Angeles. Since then, they have worked on four other plants in California and Florida, and have received more inquiries than they can even respond to. It’s not just wastewater facilities that are eager to get their hands on PTG’s technology. The company is also getting requests from breweries, snack-food companies, and even aquariums. Each project is tailor-made to the needs of the client and, depending on the specifications, can cost as little as $500,000 and as much as $180 million, a figure Greg Jr. recently quoted a prospective customer in Asia.
“Places like India and China may have a greater need because of their rapid growth, and clean energy and accessible clean water can be real barriers to growth,” Greg Jr. says. “I think this is a global opportunity.”
The potential for growth is already attracting interest from investors, including EIC Ventures, which invested $1 million into the company this winter. PTG is using that money to expand its sales and engineering talent.
Meanwhile, other industry experts are taking notice. According to Andrew Salveson, the water-reuse chief technologist at Corollo Engineers in Walnut Creek, California, there was a small amount of research on pasteurizing wastewater, but no one had found a way to do it economically. PTG’s preheating process and effective use of biogas to create renewable energy is a major differentiator. Plus, he was impressed with the founders’ commitment. “Tons of companies in this space have great ideas, but they don’t put their own finances in. They look for a handout,” Salveson says. “That was never the case with PTG. They said, ‘We think our technology is important and we’re going to prove it.'”
Both Ryans have a long-term vision for how their technology will solve the world water crisis. Though they doubt consumers will ever accept disinfected wastewater as drinking water (“A greater man than me has died trying to make that happen,” Greg Jr. says), it will be critical to things such as irrigation and recharging aquifers, many of which are in danger of drying up.
“We recycle bottles, we recycle cans,” Greg Jr. says. “It’s time to realize water’s too valuable to use once and then throw away.”
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