Interview | Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The water genius

Water treatment engineer Ing. Marco Cremona discusses in depth with Charlot Zahra his latest project, the HOTER process, which recycles hotel waste water into potable water, which has already won international acclaim abroad over the past two years. But the project is only marginally feasible in Malta due to subsidised water tariffs and the availability of cheap illegal bowser water.

You can be described as an eclectic person – an engineer by training, a hydrologist by profession and a mountaineer in your spare time. How do you manage to combine these various facets of your life?
What you have forgotten to mention is that I am also an environmentalist by passion. I started out as a mechanical engineer.
The first job that I had was with a company which supplies water treatment equipment – that was the first time I came in contact with water.
Then I completed the water cycle by studying for a Masters in Hydrology, which deals with water in the environment.
It was at this stage that I started getting interested in the environment for various years I have been an activist in the field.
I was an active member within Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA) for a number of years. I also lobby and write articles on a personal basis on various environmental issues, particularly water.
I do not consider myself a mountaineer it is difficult for somebody to be classified a mountaineer in Malta. It’s a hobby, it’s a sport. I like challenges, and in the case of the mountain, it’s a physical challenge. Contrary to public perception it’s not a situation of you against the mountain (the mountain can never be conquered). It’s a challenge of you versus yourself. So it’s very personal.
Even as an environmentalist, it is a challenge to change the mentality about certain things as it’s not easy at all.

Are you an expert in time management?
It’s not easy. I try to work on a project, complete it, and then start another one. For instance, now there are still six months until we set off for Everest – so I am currently focusing on my work. As the deadline nears, I would start reducing my activities on one thing and increase my activities on the other one.
I am self-employed – there are no weekends to spare, and if the need arises, I also work at night.
However, I love my work, and my work interwines with my voluntary work so it is not tiring for me to work – but the downside is that it leaves very little time for myself.

Could you kindly explain more about the HOTER process, whereby a typical hotel can treat and re-use 100 per cent of its wastewater?
If you had to see how Malta and the rest of the developed world use water, it is a rather inefficient process. The producer, in this case the Water Services’ Corporation (WSC), is in one place, while the consumer is at another place.
Therefore you need energy to produce the water and then more energy to transport that water from the production site to the user. During that process, you are also losing part of the water – typically around 30 per cent of water produced locally is lost during transmission.
Moreover, we are using potable water for various uses which do not require drinking water, for instance, to flush the toilet, therefore good quality water is being wasted for uses which can manage with lower quality water.
We use the water only once, it becomes waste water that needs to be pumped to another location for treatment, either for disposal at sea or, if you want to re-use it, you need to transport that water back to the consumer.
Hence there are alot of inefficiencies in the system which lead to a high price for potable water. For my project I identified hotels, which are huge consumers of water and therefore have equally huge costs for using potable water in their premises.
I identified all the inefficiencies in the system and considered waste water as a resource rather than a problem and developed a system that treats wastewater into potable water, on site.
If you consider that waste water is 99.99 per cent pure water - it is easy to imagine that you can produce potable water out of this wastewater - remove the 0.01 per cent impurities, and you are left with pure, safe drinking water.
Therefore the HOTER system, which is designed for hotels (but has other applications), takes up all the waste water of a hotel and purifies to a level which is potable, even though the purified water will be mainly used for showers.
The Public Health Regulations stipulate that for water to be used in showers of hotels, it has to be drinking quality water, therefore that’s the purity level that I have to achieve.
During the past two years, I have built and tested a medium-sized prototype, which is treating wastewater from a hotel in Malta.

How much waste water does the plant process?
It processes approximately 500 litres an hour – if you consider the hotel where I am testing, the Golden Sands, the plant purifies around 5 per cent of the hotel’s entire waste water. This may be small but 5 per cent of the wastewater from a large hotel is a lot of water.
I did not wish to test on a small-scale laboratory basis, however at the same time, the investment in the prototype could not be prohibitive. I was mostly interested in getting reliable results not in producing huge quantities of water.
Hence this was the ideal scale to obtain the results that I desired.
The other partners in this project are the Island Hotels Group that provided the space, the wastewater and the other services, the German TTZ Bremerhaven Research Institute that provided part of the equipment and the Public Health Department.
The Public Health Department was involved as a partner since the beginning so that they would vouch for every test that I conducted on the purity of the water, so that no problems would arise once the project is commercialised. They took the samples and they tested them in their labs.
I also benefited from funds from the Research and Innovation Fund 2006 run by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST). Thanks to those funds, I managed to build the prototype and conduct the necessary tests.
If I had to do it on my own, it would have been close to impossible for a researcher to fork out the €100,000 investment capital needed to build the prototype and the time needed to run the prototype for 18 months, plus the costs of tests, etc. Therefore this seed funding was instrumental in getting the project from paper to what is now a project ready for commercialization.

How much did the entire project cost?
The R+D programme finances up to 75 per cent of the total project cost, hence the entire project was in the region of €130,000, inclusive of the infrastructure and the tests.

What has been the response to this project in the hotel and hospitality industry in Malta?
I have not started marketing the project locally. However, the HOTER project was filmed by several international television stations, including AL-Jazeera, Portuguese TV, Latvian TV, France 5 and, finally, CNBC.
Until now I have already won three international awards with the HOTER project. The first award was The National Prize for Energy Globe 2008, awarded in Prague in May 2009, which gives recognition to sustainable projects.
The second prize won by the HOTER project was the Report Terre 2009 Award by national French TV station France 5, which selected HOTER as the best environmental project in Europe.
The final one, which is the most prestigious one, perhaps, is the Finalist status in the Good Entrepreneur of the Year Competition awarded by business channel CNBC Europe, which sought the best green business idea in Europe. For the intents of winning the competition, the project must not only safeguard the environment, but must also make business sense, which is the most important for me, as I want to create a marketable product.
I am currently among the final three after having been previously shortlisted with the top ten from more than 200 entries from all over Europe.
The final prize is €250,000, part in cash as well as several free services and free spots on CNBC. The finalist awards have already been recorded last week in London, and will be broadcast on 26 November 2009 on CNBC (
During the awards’ night, each finalist had to make a two-minute pitch of his project in front of the audience and the judges to sell his or her project to the judges.
Since I am bound by a confidentiality agreement with CNBC, I cannot disclose the outcome of the result. However, for a Maltese person to be chosen as a finalist for this prestigious competition is already a victory on its own.

Following the presentation of the project locally and internationally, have other companies show their interest in the HOTER project?
To date, the interest in the project has been exclusively from overseas. I have been approached by Chinese, French and Portuguese investors and potential end-users of the process. Last Friday, I was also approached by an Irish hotelier whose hotel is in the planning stage but who will not get a development permit if it does not treat its wastewater.
All these contacts were the result of the exposure from The Good Entrepreneur website since the CNBC programme about my project had not yet been shown. My one-minute video clip about my project got more than 1500 hits, the highest from the 200 plus project ideas submitted.
There is interest not solely from hoteliers who want to apply the project, but also from potential investors who want to invest in the commercialisation of the project.
To take to the next step, I need a certain amount of investment.
Can the HOTER process be expanded to domestic use? What steps have been taken in this direction? At what stage is this development?
Technologically it is possible to scale it down to domestic scale, but commercially it does not make sense. First of all, you need certain large volumes of waste water to justify the relatively high capital investment that you need in the plant.
Secondly, the subsidy on water tariffs must be stopped to make the project commercially feasible in Malta for small scale applications.
My HOTER project is competing against an unrealistic price of town water, and illegal groundwater that is extracted from boreholes for free.
Moreover, the sewerage service in Malta is completely subsidised. Nobody pays anything for the disposal of wastewater into the sewerage system, so why bother treating it?

If you had to take my project in Germany, where consumers pay €3 per cubic metre for potable water and another €3 per cubic metre for the waste water that they generate, then my recycling process becomes competitive as I am competing against a price of €6 per cubic metre, not €2 per cubic metre as the situation is now in Malta (the price of town water for hotels).

If Malta comes in line with the EU framework Directive and full cost recovery is introduced, would that change the situation for you?
Definitely Malta would be an ideal scenario as the cost of water production in Malta is high, as we produce most of our water through reverse osmosis plants, which consume a lot of electricity. And we know the problems we have in getting an affordable supply of electricity in Malta. My process would not only save money to hotels, but reduce stress on our water resources and reduce the load on our municipal sewerage treatment plants. A win-win situation.

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18 November 2009


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