Dr. Asha Srinivasan listed among powerhouse Canadian environmentalists like Naomi Klein and David Suzuki for her work in waste reduction
To celebrate Earth Day, CBC released an article listing “13 Canadian environmentalists and innovators changing Earth for the better.” In addition to household names like David Suzuki and Naomi Klein, the list included a member of the UBC Civil Engineering faculty, Dr. Asha Srinivasan. The mention highlighted her work as Chief Technology Officer with Boost Environmental Systems, the company she co-founded to develop a new technology that reduces agricultural waste. Building on research by UBC Civil Engineering professor Dr. Victor Lo and Research Associate Dr. Ping Huang Liao, the IMPACT process solves a variety of waste management and environmental problems.
IMPACT reduces costs associated with processing sewage sludge and manure and helps divert excess nutrients that would otherwise pollute water systems into a product that farmers can sell. Scalable and modular, it can be implemented at the level of an individual dairy farm, or as part of a wastewater treatment plant that serves a community.
Journey at UBC
Joining the Civil Engineering department in 2012, Srinivasan started her journey at UBC as a Postdoctoral Researcher after graduating from her Ph.D. at the University of Regina. With an NSERC fellowship in Industrial Research and Development, and later a MITACS fellowship, she worked with Dr. Victor Lo’s research group and Opus DaytonKnight Consultants (now WSP Global) on the development of Dr. Lo’s Microwave Enhanced Advanced Oxidation Process (MW-AOP) technology, which has now been trademarked as the IMPACT process.
Continuing the research that Professor Lo and Dr. Liao had conducted since 2003, Srinivasan’s role was to set up and operate a fully working pilot system, transforming the technology from its second-generation stage in UBC’s McMillan Building, to a working on-site demonstration in Abbotsford’s James Wastewater Treatment Plant. This collaboration between the City of Abbotsford, Opus and Professor Lo’s research group allowed IMPACT’s “sludge busting” abilities to be tested on real wastewater.
Using microwave heat and hydrogen peroxide, the IMPACT process:
- Reduces the volume of waste by 40-60%;
- Changes the composition of the waste so it can be more easily processed;
- Reduces nutrient runoff pollution from farmland into nearby waterways;
- Enables the production of commercial-quality fertilizer for resale.
Revolutionizing Wastewater Treatment
By applying microwave heating and oxidation to sewage, IMPACT reduces the amount of solid waste, or “sludge” that a treatment plant has to process. Wastewater treatment facilities spend 50-60% of their budgets dealing with sludge treatment and disposal, and facing harsher restrictions on sludge disposal in landfills, treatment plants are in a sticky situation. IMPACT is considered a “zero sludge technology” (or a very low sludge yield), and by significantly reducing the amount of waste sludge that a treatment facility has to process, it instantly increases the facility’s capacity and efficiency. This has immediate implications for growing communities with limited space and resources, allowing them to become more sustainably prepared for the future with an investment that would only take two to four years to recoup in savings.
Finding Pollution Solution to a Dairy Dilemma
The other application for the IMPACT system is in dairy farming. The technology can be scaled to fit an average dairy farm where it would prevent the pollution caused by nutrient runoff. In a typical Fraser Valley dairy farm cow manure has been traditionally used as a fertilizer, but this can lead to soils becoming over-saturated with nutrients, which pollute nearby bodies of water when they wash away. Used by a farm, the IMPACT process not only reduces waste at the source, but when combined with a struvite crystallizer (like the one invented by UBC Civil Engineering Professor Donald Mavinic) it can extract the nutrients and convert them to commercial-quality fertilizer which can then be resold. The technology was successfully tested in an on-site demonstration at UBC’s Dairy Education Research Centre at Agassiz.
From Academy to Marketplace
Srinivasan and her collaborators are one demonstration project away from turning their research into a market-ready commercial solution. They will get the chance in June 2018 to set up a larger-scale pilot system in partnership with Metro Vancouver at the Annacis Research Centre, adapting their technology to serve a large urban centre. This project is an opportunity for them to do the year or two of development necessary to create a full system that is at least partially automated – the minimum viable product for commercialization.
With the market application on the horizon, Srinivasan and her collaborators formed the UBC spinoff company, Boost Environmental Systems, in order to eventually license their invention to industry consumers. As Chief Technology Officer of the new startup, Srinivasan asserts that there’s still a lot of research and development that needs to happen before IMPACT is ready for commercial release. Nonetheless, she said that the support available in the city to develop their new company has been very valuable:
Only after coming to Vancouver I got this exposure… I graduated from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and until then I was in India, and I really had no idea how you market your technology – never even thought about it. But then when you come here you have such huge platforms. There’s a mechanism that’s going to help you, teach you – literally from infancy stage to toddler stage they really walk with you and teach you how to do everything. That mechanism is very impressive …the whole system is well built to support startups and incubate them.
They worked with a venture accelerator program offered through the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), as well as entrepreneurship@UBC, an on-campus resource with programs like Lean Launch Pad and Venture Builder, to understand the market they were entering. Based in the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre, entrepreneurship@UBC is a venture accelerator that can help UBC students and faculty with the business expertise needed to transition their work from the academy to the marketplace.
Now a UBC Civil Engineering Research Associate, Srinivasan continues to work in the academic world, while the BOOST Environmental Systems’ business model is still being explored. Nonetheless, her path shows how university research can have a real-world impact, creating sustainable businesses that prepare environmental and economic solutions for British Columbia’s future.