Nature as an ally: innovative applications and outlook

The industrial era was a turning point, in which Man exploited natural resources, that are limited by their nature, on a massive scale, and deregulated certain natural cycles, such as the climate.

But the very existence of Man depends on the four major ecosystemic services that nature offers us: the supply of materials (water, minerals, etc.), regulating services (the climate, the water cycle, self-purification of water, etc.), support services (the formation of soil, the C and N cycles, etc.) and cultural services (aesthetic and spiritual benefits, etc.). More than ever before, protecting the living world is not an option, but a necessity – even in urban environments!

The circular economy, which lies at the very heart of the environmental services that SUEZ provides, draws inspiration from precisely these natural cycles to save natural resources, and to turn one man’s waste into another man’s resources. Let’s look at how the living world is a source of inspiration for our water and waste management, or our air treatment activities.

Drawing inspiration from the ingenuity of nature to manage the urban water cycle

Water is the primary component of living matter. It is a quasi-universal solvent and, therefore, a matrix of biochemical reactions. In this respect, it is also a marker of human activities.

The urban water cycle comprises different stages, from the drawing of raw water from natural environments, to the production and distribution of drinking water, its use for domestic and industrial purposes, then the collection and treatment of wastewater, which is then returned to the natural ecosystem. In this cycle, the treatment in wastewater treatment plants is based on biological processes that use the action of bacteria to convert the dissolved polluting particles into solid pollution. This process results in the release of clean water into the natural environment and the production of an organic mass of bacteria and suspended solids.However, this process consumes a lot of energy, in particular to produce nitrates before the formation of gaseous nitrogen. We have developed an innovative biological treatment technology, the Cleargreen process, that consumes significantly less energy than conventional treatments and increases the production of biogas by favouring the development of a bacterium capable of transforming the nitrites directly into gaseous nitrogen, without producing any nitrates.

 

The methanation of sewage sludge is another example of how nature inspires the water cycle. This process consists of using the properties of anaerobic bacteria to produce biogas, which is purified into biomethane, then injected into the urban natural gas network.

Finally, we also develop bio-inspired solutions for wastewater discharges that speed up the restoration of marine biodiversity. The REFISH project, which is currently being tested in one of the ports in the harbour of Marseilles, consists of installing artificial habitats inspired by marine posidonia beds that are conducive to the development of young fish. This is the aim of wastewater treatment.

 

                                                           

By taking a biomimetic approach, the REFISH project aims at creating artificial habitats that, when installed on port infrastructure, like docks or pontoons, encourage the redevelopment of biodiversity. (c)Jérôme Meyer-Bisch

Putting the circular economy at the heart of waste management

In nature, the notion of waste does not exist. The “waste” produced by one organism is useful to another. This is the logic behind the circular economy, as demonstrated by the initiative launched by the start-up Nextalim, which we support. This Poitiers-based company has developed know-how in the breeding of flies that transform biowaste into proteins for the animal feed and green chemistry sectors. This solution combats food waste by creating a new channel for the recovery of organic waste, and also offers a source of alternative proteins. This is a significant development, in a world that will have 11 billion inhabitants by 2100! For example, this insect flour can be used in fish farming, which currently consumes between 2.5 and 5 kg of wild fish to produce 1 kg of farmed fish. It represents a solution for the future, in particular in the fight against over-fishing.

Along the same lines as the circular economy, the industrial ecology aims to create flows between different uses. For example, in Bessières, near Toulouse, we recover the heat produced by the combustion of household waste to heat tomato greenhouses. In Narbonne, the Bioressource Lab, an offshoot of the CIRSEE that will open in 2020, plans to develop processes to extract high added-value molecules from organic waste.

                                       

In Bessières (France), tomato greenhouses are heatedwith waste treated by the Econotre eco-centre. (c)SUEZ/Mathieu Rondel

Finally, circularity starts in the product design phase, especially of packaging. Packaging’s role to protect and transport its own content could be considered as a biomimetic application of a fruit that protects its own seeds. But, unlike aluminium or plastic packaging materials, fruit is produced and decomposes at atmospheric pressures and temperatures, without consuming any fossil energy. In this respect, the ecodesign of packaging for easy recycling has become a key issue, on which we are working with our industrial customers.

Harnessing the properties of micro-algae and the principle of photosynthesis to purify the air

According to the WHO, 91% of the world’s population breathes polluted air. In France, 90% of the population of Greater Paris is exposed to atmospheric pollution, and 65% of them considers air quality to be their most important environmental concern. Here again, the living world is a source of inspiration for innovative processes to address this major environmental and public health issue. With Fermentalg, we have developed a solution that uses the properties of micro-algae to purify the air. INERIS has certified our first tests on cases of atmospheric pollution representative of the world’s megacities, in which fine particles were cut by 66% to 99% and nitrogen oxides were reduced by 76% to 97%, depending on the configuration.

 

These concrete examples illustrate how the numerous faculties of the living world provide inspiration to implement the circular economy in the solid (waste), liquid (water) and gaseous (air) phases. In fact, the collaborative nature of the innovation process itself inevitably draws inspiration from ecological principles. But, we must not reduce biomimicry to a “library” of physical and chemical principles. First and foremost, nature is a source of wonder, nature is magnificent, and this beauty is a source of creativity and innovation in itself!

 

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This column is taken from a speech given at the Biomim’expo exhibition in September 2019 in Paris.

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