"Innovation is an integral part of all our actions, from design to operation and maintenance"
The research, development and innovation (RDI) activities of ACCIONA’s water business include the development of new projects and processes as well as technical assistance to all departments of the company.
ACCIONA develops technologies that are used in water treatment plants around the world. Smart Water Magazine interviewed Jorge Malfeito, Director of Innovation at ACCIONA to learn about the company’s research and innovation strategy, the transfer process to industrial-scale implementation and some successful cases of innovation projects that have resulted in solutions currently in use in water treatment plants operated by ACCIONA.
First of all, could you tell us briefly about your professional career and your current role at ACCIONA?
After finishing my postgraduate studies in Chemical Sciences and Polymer Technology, I joined Pridesa as a researcher with the responsibility of creating a new Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) department and starting up the company's membrane development project. Subsequently, I went on to lead the RDI activities of ACCIONA’s water business, which include activities related to the development of new projects and processes as well as technical assistance to all departments of the company, until I reached my current position as Innovation Director of ACCIONA’s water business. In addition, I am a member of the Steering Committee of the European Desalination Society (EDS) and the Steering Committee of the European water platform Water Europe (WE). I am also a member of the International Desalination Association (IDA) participating in its RDI Committee and a member of AEDyR, the Spanish Desalination and Reuse Association.
Can you tell us about the lines of research you are working on, and what was the strategy followed to identify these lines?
First of all, I have to say that our actions are aligned with ACCIONA’s strategy and its Sustainability Master Plan, where decarbonisation, the circular economy, the development of sustainable infrastructure and having a positive impact on the planet are major themes in all ACCIONA’s projects. In this regard, the strategic innovation lines in each of the main areas (desalination, wastewater treatment, reuse and drinking water treatment) are comprised of lines such as energy minimisation and use of renewable energies, resource recovery and valorisation, and digital innovation.
Decarbonisation, circular economy, sustainable infrastructure and a positive impact on the planet are major themes in ACCIONA’s projects
The process to arrive at these lines of research involves several phases. On one hand, we analyse the environment using technology surveillance tools to identify global trends and priority lines of action related to sustainability and innovation in the water sector. On the other hand, the needs of stakeholders relating to ACCIONA's innovation activities are identified and analysed. Among the most relevant are the end users (external) and the different ACCIONA departments to which the results of innovation projects are transferred (internal users) since collaboration with them is fundamental for us.
All this is complemented by the ideas arising from the knowledge and activity of our researchers, to conclude with a selection and prioritization of the most relevant technologies for ACCIONA based on the current and expected level of development in the coming years, the existing capabilities and resources, either internal or as part of the company's innovation ecosystem and detailed technical information in scientific publications, participation in international conferences, etc.
ACCIONA has a Water Technology Centre and several demonstration plants to carry out innovation activities. What role do they play in the development of innovative solutions?
Our department is responsible for identifying and highlighting all innovative activity and also for the Strategic Innovation Plan
Innovation is something that is in the company's DNA, and innovation activities are carried out in all areas of the company. Our department is responsible for identifying and highlighting all innovative activity and also for the development of the Strategic Innovation Plan, which sets out the future lines of action that we believe we need to work on in order to maintain the leadership of ACCIONA’s water division.
From our Technology Centre we coordinate all the activities we are involved in. On one hand, those carried out at the centre itself, where we start the first proofs of concept of new projects and where we have a water chemistry laboratory equipped with the most advanced analytical techniques and a process laboratory where we can carry out any type of small-scale tests and determine the hydraulic characteristics of all kinds of membranes.
Finally, we have pilot and demonstration plants, located in some of the plants we operate, including desalination plants, wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment plants. In these pilot plants, we carry out the final tests of all the new processes with real water. They are fundamental to validate the results and obtain operating parameters of these processes that will later be transferred to the business and become part of the company's technology portfolio.
What is the Open Innovation programme to accelerate innovation?
It is a corporate program based on the conviction that innovation goes beyond the structure of the company, and that we must work hand in hand with the best talent to develop innovative technologies and help transform our business and those of our clients.
ACCIONA advocates an open collaboration model to underpin the sustainability of its business and to enrich knowledge through the assimilation of external technological perspectives that promote innovation and sustainable development. All of this forms part of our I'MNOVATION initiative, which supports the company's innovative and creative approach, articulating co-creation between ACCIONA's business and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
ACCIONA promotes its open innovation programme to accelerate innovation in the era of disruption. This is the first corporate accelerator for infrastructure and renewable energy startups in Spain. Through open and collaborative innovation, we explore the co-creation of solutions and new sustainable value propositions to address the company's strategic challenges and the challenges of the different business units by combining internal knowledge and the capabilities provided by the best startups. These startups that participate in the I'MNOVATION programme develop pilot projects together with experts from the company for three months, to validate them in real market environments. During that time they count on the collaboration, mentoring and funding from ACCIONA for their execution.
On the other hand, ACCIONA promotes intrapreneurship through a programme whose objective is for employees to become a fundamental pillar of transformation and the creation of new business models, supporting sustainable development from within the company. This initiative nurtures the professional development of our people through cross-cutting and multidisciplinary collaboration, encouraging teamwork.
ACCIONA has developed technologies that are subsequently used in water treatment plants around the world. Could you explain how the transfer process from the laboratory to industrial-scale implementation works?
Through open innovation, we explore the co-creation of solutions and new sustainable value propositions to address strategic challenges
The ultimate goal of our activity is that the results of our projects constitute a fundamental technological base to have a competitive advantage and differentiate us from our competitors. The entire innovation process is certified under the UNE 166002 standard (Spanish Association for Standardization), which also normalises the transfer of results both to the internal user, which is what commonly happens in ACCIONA's Water Business, and to the external user. In short, the process begins with the identification of the results to be valorised and the identification of the departments and people who could be recipients of this transfer. Next, a work plan is established, with an allocation of resources and a budget, and finally, implementation takes place. Depending on the department or the technology to be transferred, the procedure could be simplified, but in any case, once the transfer has been carried out, it is assessed and monitored to know to what extent objectives were achieved, as well as the strengths, aspects to be improved and to assess new transfer opportunities.
Our intrapreneurship initiative nurtures staff’s professional development through multidisciplinary collaboration, encouraging teamwork
Please tell us about some successful cases of innovation projects that have resulted in solutions currently in use in water treatment plants operated by ACCIONA.
The main objective of all our actions is that our developments and innovations have a business application that provides added value from the outset.
If we have to highlight one, it would be the flotation (Ultradaf®) and flotation-filtration (Actidaff®) systems that we have installed as pre-treatment in many of the desalination plants that we build and that constitute a robust barrier against variations in the quality of the water entering the desalination plants, including possible algae blooms. These same processes can be installed in drinking water treatment plants. Focusing on the osmosis process itself, the RO-Saveflux® configuration of the reverse osmosis racks of desalination plants helps to reduce energy consumption. And finally, in the post-treatment stage, we have developed more efficient remineralization processes, which reduce the number of reagents used and avoid possible turbidity events in the produced water.
In the area of wastewater treatment, a good example would be the Niparmox® technology in which we use anammox bacteria highly specialized in the elimination of nitrogen. We use these bacteria to treat the water drained from the sludge, to eliminate the high nitrogen load. The application of the Niparmox® process provides additional capacity in the overall removal of nitrogen in a WWTP, reducing by 25% the aeration needs in the biological reactor, with the impact this has on the energy consumed by the treatment plant. In addition, it completely eliminates the need to provide external organic matter and reduces energy consumption due to recirculation.
The ultimate goal is that the results of our projects constitute a fundamental technological base to have a competitive advantage
Continuing with wastewater treatment technologies, we have the DigestUp® process, a sludge pre-treatment aimed at increasing biogas production in the anaerobic digestion process. This technology can be applied in any treatment plant that has an anaerobic digestion process, both in existing and newly constructed plants. The advantages include improvements in the anaerobic digestion process of sewage sludge in terms of energy, obtaining increases of 22% in the generation of biogas per day and increasing its methane content by 32%. In addition, the amount of sludge generated in the sewage treatment plant is reduced. Therefore, more biogas of biological origin is produced, thus reducing the dependence of the treatment plants on other energy sources, increasing self-consumption and contributing to carbon neutrality and the circularity of the treatment process.
What is the role of collaboration with other entities, such as research centres and service providers?
As I mentioned earlier, our innovation activities follow a collaborative and open approach, so we cooperate with public and private entities, both universities and research centres as well as public and private companies, extending the scope of innovation to different areas of specialization and from different levels of technological maturity, which allows the company to position itself at the forefront of technology and helps us become leaders in the sector. We also participate in international technological cooperation projects in which the participation of different actors: universities, technology centres, and small and medium-sized companies, is essential to successfully achieve the projects’ objectives.
Can you tell us about the European projects in which you participate?
At the moment, some European projects worth noting are LIFE INDESAL and LIFE PRISTINE. In the first one, not only do we seek to reduce specific energy consumption and the use of chemical reagents in seawater desalination plants, but also to generate renewable energy and commodities from brine streams employing a saline gradient process patented by us. LIFE INDESAL thus manages to align the desalination process with the circular economy concept, considering seawater as a source of resources and contributing to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6, ensuring the availability of water and its sustainable management, in line with ACCIONA’s commitment to sustainability.
In the LIFE PRISTINE project, we aim to eliminate emerging pollutants in the integrated water cycle, an essential measure to promote alternative water resources in the face of water scarcity, which affects more than 2.8 billion people worldwide. The project aims to build a sustainable alternative to ensure the removal of emerging contaminants in the integrated water cycle, going beyond the limits established by the European Drinking Water Directive and the new European regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse. LIFE-PRISTINE focuses on emerging pollutants such as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, toxins, antibiotic resistance genes and microplastics. The project will contribute to reinforcing existing regulations and will guarantee the use and reuse of water with maximum quality and safety guarantees.
We cooperate with public and private entities, both universities and research centres as well as public and private companies
And at the national level in Spain, I would like to mention the HADES project, within our Digital Innovation area. This project, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, aims to validate a proof of concept of a decision support system in wastewater treatment plants capable of using near real-time plant data to suggest the optimal operating strategy and a prediction of undesirable events in the plant, using artificial intelligence tools, predictive control models and a digital twin based on calibrated computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models throughout the plant and detailed WWTP models based on activated sludge models (ASM).
What do the activities of the Innovation department in the water area contribute to a company like ACCIONA?
The department's activities are a point of reference for ACCIONA's water business. Within our conception of innovation as an integral part of all our actions, from design to operation and maintenance, including construction, the innovation area not only develops strategic lines aligned with those of the company, but also provides continuous technical support in all phases of the life cycle of the company's projects and services. It thus supports the company’s activities and identifies innovation developed in all departments as well as technology transfer, without forgetting internal training.