GOING WHERE NO TREATMENT TECHNOLOGY HAS GONE BEFORE
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Axine Water Employs Cutting-Edge Tech to Destroy Tough-to-Treat Toxins in Wastewater
Time and again, in society’s pursuit of the next new and ‘better’ thing, we have unwittingly opened Pandora’s box to unexpected outcomes. To wit – consider the enormous challenges arising from chemicals used to manufacture products we use every day. The toxic byproducts of their synthesis can be found virtually everywhere, polluting our waters and ecosystems. Even at extremely low concentrations, their impact can be devastating.
I recently interviewed Jonathan Rhone, CEO of Axine Water Technologies, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, to discuss such concerns. This article highlights significant issues challenging water quality and treatment experts globally and how Axine is tackling the problems.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Good day, Jonathan. Thank you for participating in this interview. Would you please provide us with some background about yourself, the company you work with and what you’re out to accomplish here in Canada and elsewhere?
I began my career in the oil and gas sector. I also worked for a time with the United Nations’ “Center for our Common Future” in Geneva. I’ve spent the last 25 years building cleantech companies as a serial entrepreneur.
A venture capital fund introduced me to Axine and its founder. The founder’s vision to create a new global solution for treating toxic, persistent organic compounds in industrial wastewater intrigued me.
Industrial manufacturing, which makes all the plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and electronics our society demands, is responsible for creating increasingly challenging process wastewaters that require purification. Contaminants include a dizzying array of complex synthetic and non-biodegradable organic chemicals that accumulate in groundwater, surface water and polar ice – and inevitably end up in the food chain and, in some cases, our bloodstream.
Axine’s mission is to create a new standard for treating these types of complex, recalcitrant and toxic organic chemicals in industrial wastewaters. Today, we have a commercially-proven technology with the unique capability to oxidize and destroy virtually any complex chemical pollutant in wastewater onsite at the manufacturing plant before they enter the environment.
Further, the marketplace has welcomed our innovative approach to business – treating wastewater-as-a-service under multi-year service agreements. At Axine, we build, finance, operate and service our technology onsite for customers and provide full performance guarantees so they don’t have to invest capital and accept technology risks. We assure them that our experts will take care of their wastewater problem so they can focus on their core business.
Our approach requires developing the expertise to analyze the mountains of data we produce. We stream performance data to Vancouver from wherever our plants are located worldwide and use data analytics to monitor how effectively our systems operate to meet our performance obligations. And importantly, we foster strong relationships with financial institutions to access the capital required to build our plants.
Ultimately, our skillset generates compelling results for our customers from a risk-reduction standpoint. The same holds for our company and shareholders because we’re generating valuable and ‘sticky’ recurring revenue over time.
Our objective is ambitious. We want to become the world’s best at what we do. We started in the pharmaceutical industry and are also entering into other applications, so we’re pretty excited about where we are.
Let’s explore your concerns about the level of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) released into the environment. How serious a problem is this? What are these APIs of concern, where are they showing up, and why are they a problem?
We selected the pharmaceutical industry as a beachhead vertical market for several reasons. Pharma companies face a range of demands from their customers and supply chains, not-for-profit groups, governments and participants in the pharma industry to proactively limit the discharge of APIs in manufacturing wastewater.
The pharma industry manufactures thousands of different APIs that end up in wastewater – we’re talking about a wide range of complex compounds, including antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, antiparasitics and many others. We can expect virtually every type of medicine to show up in discharge water arising from their manufacture. APIs are not currently regulated, so it’s a voluntary effort at this time. We do expect that these APIs will eventually become regulated.
Analytic detection capabilities have advanced to the point that we can discover APIs and other organic compounds in water at extremely low concentrations. There is one class of APIs – antibiotics – where their negative impact is well documented. Antibiotics have become a catalyst for action in the pharma industry due to the unprecedented rise in antimicrobial resistance.
Antimicrobial resistance develops from the misuse of antibiotics across the spectrum and has helped usher in the arrival of superbugs resistant to antibiotics. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, the increasing costs arising from antimicrobial resistance could exceed $1 trillion per year and cause up to 10 million deaths per year. Of course, wastewater discharge from hundreds of antibiotics manufacturing plants worldwide compounds the problem enormously.
The pharma industry has been remarkably proactive in approaching this challenge. A group called the Anti-Microbial Resistance Industry Alliance is based in Europe that includes many big pharma manufacturing companies. They’ve established standards for limiting the discharge of antibiotics to the environment. We’re working with many member companies, operating Axine solutions onsite to destroy the antibiotic residue before release.
What are the best ways to reduce the release of APIs from process wastewater?
The only way to destroy these substances is through aggressive oxidation processes. There are several ways to accomplish destruction. One method involves thermal oxidation. A significant competitor requires customers to truck their wastewater offsite, where the wastewater is sprayed into an incinerator to burn off the residual APIs. In some cases, the process employs chemical oxidation such as ozone or peroxide. These processes sometimes combine UV light to enhance effectiveness.
In Axine’s case, the standard we’re introducing is entirely different – electrochemical oxidation. We apply an electric charge to advanced catalyst materials to generate an O-H radical; single oxygen and single hydrogen atoms combine to become the most reactive oxidant available. When O-H radicals contact API molecules, they break the molecular bonds and progressively oxidize those molecules back to their basic building blocks – hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which are benign trace gases that are released into the atmosphere.
On a macro scale, we flow wastewater through our reactor containing stacks of these anode-cathode-anode-cathode advanced materials, and we use electricity to break the wastewater down.
How does Axine’s process compare with other methods from an energy efficiency standpoint?
Energy efficiency comes down to comparing the cost of our total solution to the cost of other solutions, including the cost of energy. We have continuously worked to make our process more energy-efficient, and the system’s electricity demand is now a fraction of our overall service fee.
Our process is very efficient, and it’s all-electric. There are no fossil fuels required unless they are used to generate the electricity consumed by the process. Further, the global mix of renewable vs. non-renewable electricity generation is trending towards lower costs and full decarbonization, making us highly competitive with other solutions on a dollar per unit volume of wastewater treated.
From the customer’s perspective, our solution is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We provide a turnkey package – we manufacture our units in Vancouver, ship them to the customer’s site, plug them in, and operate and maintain them while remotely monitoring the process. We also provide a performance guarantee. The impact of our system on the customer’s operation is very low compared with the relatively high level of operator intervention required by our competitors’ solutions. So, we alleviate cost concerns and the headache of dealing with other options. You could call us a pain reliever…
Are you able to share the results you’ve seen with Axine’s technologies in real-life applications?
We’re presently working with one of the largest pharma companies in the world, nearing completion of a comprehensive piloting program at one of their antibiotics manufacturing plants that produces several different antibiotics. We’ve treated a very common antibiotic from about 400,000 parts per billion to less than one ppb.
Additionally, we have tested dozens of APIs, from cancer therapies to hormone steroids, antibiotics, antiparasitics, antivirals and pain relievers. We have treated every API to the required PNEC levels of one part per billion or lower. Our technology is one of the most potent oxidation processes available for this type of wastewater.
In the future, we expect our technology will be single-pass, and what we offer today is a sequencing batch process. We flow the wastewater into a storage tank, pull a batch of that water, and recirculate it through our reactors until we achieve the desired treatment level, at which point we discharge it. Then we draw another batch of wastewater to treat. We design the capacity of the system to process more than 100% of the daily wastewater produced onsite in 24 hours. The sequencing batch process provides the customer full assurance that we treat every batch down to or below the required levels for discharge. That’s our guarantee.
The modular design of our process allows the system to be easily scaled to suit increasing demand. Every customer has plant expansions in mind, as they’re frequently adding new lines of products and increasing capacity. We need to be flexible and respond quickly to their changing requirements, and our scalable solution fits nicely with this reality.
What’s your go-to-market strategy in the pharma industry?
Axine is trying to be strategic in its approach to the massive pharma industry – we’re talking about 10,000 plants worldwide. There are significant concentrations of pharma in the US, Latin America, Europe and China.
We focus our attention on the top 20-30 pharma companies globally. These are the companies setting the standards for the rest of the industry. Many have made public statements of sustainability around wastewater and water discharge and intend to adhere to the highest standards. We want to establish a beachhead project with each company, sign a master agreement contract and then work with these companies to replicate our onsite solutions across their manufacturing network as we gain their confidence.
This approach is working – we’re making tremendous progress. Wastewater is a relatively conservative topic of discussion. Companies are careful to make the right decision for treating their wastewater and working with the best technology and company. And even when Axine is removing most of the risk for them in this effort, it takes time to earn their trust and confidence. We consider this process a long game, and we’re establishing these relationships as partners.
Also, let’s take a step back. I would say that over the last five years, the importance of ESG (environment, social and governance) categories and sustainability are beginning to drive corporate behavior, and water is a critical component of ESG. It’s not just related to achieving compliance, either. Our customers are technology companies at heart, and they need to attract the best talent. The best talent in the world prefers to work with companies doing no harm to the environment. Sustainability is a touchstone issue for many young people, especially the smartest ones.
I believe water and wastewater treatment quality has changed from a pure compliance issue to more strategic concerns for attracting and retaining customers, markets, market access and talent. I expect the trend will continue to expand over the coming years as we see the next generation of ESG. Our company fits nicely into the global shift we’re witnessing.
What’s happening for Axine regarding investments in new product development and technology?
Research and development are constant areas of focus for us. We have an incredible team of engineers and product development specialists. Our goal is to continuously develop and test new types of advanced materials, particularly catalyst materials that can reduce the cost of our hardware. Simultaneously, we’ve created a complete data program focusing on machine learning and data analytics. As I mentioned earlier, we receive a rich stream of performance data from our remote plants. By harnessing this data, we can make our solutions and technologies work more efficiently, helping to drive costs down. Additionally, we can verify the performance of our tech onsite based on data as opposed to taking samples of the water and analyzing the water samples in a lab. We continue to build on this capability, creating compelling differentiation for us in the market.
We’re investing millions of dollars into our business to continuously improve the cost and performance of our technology. Last year, we received $7 million of funding support from Sustainable Development Technologies Canada and the BC government. We continue to receive phenomenal support from the National Research Council through their IRAP program to fund our primary research and development work. In addition, we have supply chain partnerships with advanced materials companies.
It’s an ongoing effort – innovation and advancing our technologies are absolutely core to our strategy.
Any last words before we wrap up, Jon?
We’ve recently expanded to Europe, and we intend to continue expanding internationally, as we need to be able to provide our technology anywhere in the world. We manufacture and assemble everything in Vancouver, and our product development center is in Vancouver. Still, we have teammates in other parts of the world in sales, marketing and service.
One final comment – of crucial assistance to Axine in our journey is that we enjoy one of the world’s largest and most highly-connected cleantech ecosystems here in British Columbia. I’m talking about everything from our research universities to accelerators to access to capital to entrepreneurs, sales and marketing expertise. This ecosystem makes it a lot easier to solve these tough problems. I think that’s an important story to tell as it helps propel our cleantech solutions.
Thanks for sharing about Axine’s incredible success to date, Jon. What is the best way for people to learn more about your company and its solutions?
With Rachele Webb joining us as our new marketing director, I expect you’ll see more of us out in the market telling our story. We encourage people to visit our website www.axinewater.com to review some of our case studies and see where and how we’ve applied our technology.