By GREGORY ZELLER //
You’ve heard the grim news: Nitrates, phosphates, arsenates and pharmaceuticals are migrating to local rivers and lakes and ultimately to the Island’s underground aquifers of fresh water.
Look no further than the massive – and officially unexplained – June kill that left thousands of dead bunker fish floating in the Peconic River, says Mark Hopkinson, president and cofounder of Northport-based Aqua Vectors Inc. Or the frequent swimming restrictions at Northport Harbor beaches, which he said are “based entirely on the amount of nitrogen coming out of the wastewater system.”
Technologies that reduce nitrates and other contaminants do exist, but they’re often cost-prohibitive and, according to Hopkinson, not especially effective. Reverse osmosis systems, for example, recoup only 10 percent of treated water. Bacteria-based solutions don’t get the nitrates to safe levels.
Simply put: “There is no known affordable technology to get nitrates down to a level where they don’t threaten the health of surface waters or human life,” he said.
Enter Aqua Vectors and a patent-pending electrolytic detoxification method that blends a trio of chemistry disciplines to create what Hopkinson said is an “entirely different technology that’s proven to lower nitrate levels in test-water supplies to levels not achievable with other known affordable technologies.”
The science is thick: anodes and cathodes, hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, flow-directing devices and interior membranes, all focused on pH levels and negative and positive charges. And with Aqua Vectors’ patent application in limbo, Hopkinson is hesitant to explain too much.
Very basically, wastewater is run through an electrolytic cell, which contains an anode chamber, a cathode chamber and a membrane between them. Inside the cell, a base metal is dissolved into a water solution, which then hardens into a crystalline substance with a positively charged surface.
Nitrates are negatively charged, and as in all matters of science and love, opposites attract.
“Filter out the metal particles, and the nitrates go with them,” he said.
And they leave cheaply, according to Hopkinson, who said other systems cost as much as $5 per 1,000 gallons of water, versus about 16 cents per 1,000 gallons with Aqua Vector.
The startup has been building prototypes since 2010 and testing them exclusively at the Village of Northport’s wastewater treatment plant. It was preparing for a scaled-up demonstration at a second site when Hurricane Sandy stormed through.
Stray materials entering wastewater streams in the superstorm’s aftermath caused what Hopkinson called “interference in the process,” so the Aqua Vectors team – including multiple PhDs and several university professors – tinkered with the tech to address the new variables.
“If somebody dumps a barrel of transmission oil into the wastewater stream, it’s going to screw everything up,” Hopkinson noted. “But for anything that’s reasonable to expect, we believe we now have the appropriate combination of pH and electrical potential.”
With the company at “the 90 percent milestone for technology development,” according to its president, it’s again gearing up for an off-site test. The Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan, a joint effort by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Long Island Regional Planning Council to address nitrogen levels in Island waters, is helping Aqua Vectors secure a suitable location.
The final stages of technological development include proof of scalability. The accepted standard in the water-treatment business is 15,000 gallons per day, and Hopkinson anticipates no problems hitting that mark – at the second test site, he said, Aqua Vectors should be able to purify upwards of 50,000 gallons per day.
It’s a “remediation process rather than a prevention process,” Hopkinson said, and one with global applications, including hundreds of thousands of septic systems right here on Long Island.
Assuming a positive field test, tentatively scheduled for this winter, and patent approval sometime in 2016, the startup will focus earnestly on fundraising next year. Aqua Vectors has already pitched the Long Island Angel Network, and as test sites are selected and patents issued, a $500,000 funding round will become paramount, according to Hopkinson.
“We expect that $500,000 will take us through about a year, 18 months on the outside, before the technology development is completed to my satisfaction,” the president said. “I’m happy to have the funding come from angels, but I’d love for some funding to come from firms that actually specialize in designing water-treatment systems.
“Most of these companies have little back rooms where they’re working on developing new technologies or supporting the development of new technologies,” Hopkinson added. “Including quite a few here on Long Island.”
What’s It? An “entirely different” chemistry-based technology for treating wastewater
Brought To You By: Six big-thinking cofounders, including President Mark Hopkinson and the late inventor Bernard Greenberg
All In: $180,000, all for R&D, anted up in stages by the six cofounders
Status: The science works, the patent is pending, proof of scalability coming in 2016