TreaTech gets 9 more million to revolutionise waste disposal

Frédéric Juillard (bottom right), founder and CEO of TreaTech, with his team. © 2023 TreaTech

Frédéric Juillard (bottom right), founder and CEO of TreaTech, with his team. © 2023 TreaTech

“Revolutionising waste disposal by harnessing the power of the circular economy”. With this bold claim, the EPFL spin-off TreaTech sets a high bar. And is ready to deliver: the Lausanne-based start-up has announced the closing of a successful Series A financing for CHF 9 million this summer. The young cleantech company can turn your liquid waste to gold. Literally. Here is how.

TreaTech came to life in 2015 with a simple concept: take liquid waste such as sewage sludge and re-valorise it entirely. Their prototypes combine salt separation and catalytic hydrothermal gasification and holds a huge potential. Energetically, treating all the chemical wastes, liquid biomass residues and sewage sludges of Switzerland with this technology would generate enough biogas to produce about 10 MWh of net energy, corresponding to a third of Switzerland’s global gas consumption! This estimation accounts for the fact that 4-20% of the overall gas production would have been re-injected directly in TreaTech’s units to self-sustain the process. In addition to this energy output, other benefits of this solution include water recycling (up to 90% of the input in liquid waste), as well as elimination of pollutants and extraction of valuable minerals it contains, such as phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, that can be used as fertilizers. Even small amounts of gold and other precious metals, otherwise bound to be lost in our waste, are recovered!

Catalytic hydrothermal gasification, the technology giving life to the philosopher’s stone?
So, is TreaTech’s solution a modern-days philosopher stone? Yes and no. Yes, because it does allow you to sanitise and revalorise waste, to gain something from your trash. However, the process does not involve magic, and no-one is turning lead into gold. It’s all “just” about chemistry and engineering. One could compare the method to a very evolved version of distillation, in which chemists and engineers play around with the pressure and temperature of the waste sludge. The method starts by bringing the mixture to water super-critical conditions by pressurising and heating the sludge to 250 bar and 450°C. This then allows to sequentially extract the minerals and gasify all organic compounds with the help of a specific catalyst. The final outputs are dry matter constituted of minerals, salts and metals, methane-rich biogas (already pressurised, allowing for direct grid injection for storage or energy production), and contaminant-free water.

TreaTech’s prototypes combine the technologies of three patents linked with gasification, two developed in the laboratories of the Prof. Maréchal and the Prof. Luterbacher at EPFL, the third in the group of the Prof. Vogel at the Paul Scherrer Institute. Their catalytic hydrothermal gasification process works for liquid waste containing 5-30% of solid matter, making it an ideal choice for treating sewage sludges. However, other types of organic chemical wastes such as residues of monomer production, coffee grounds or agricultural waste can also be revalorised. When dilution is needed, the final net need in water remains low, since most of the water entering the system can be retrieved clean at the end of the process and hence used in a closed-circuit. Compared to incineration-based methods, this solution prevents atmospheric release of pollutants (which instead can be re-used or discarded safely after their extraction in a solid and pure form). It also avoids burning water, an energy-consuming step that releases huge amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Furthermore, because TreaTech’s prototypes are compact and modular, they can be installed at the waste production site directly, bypassing the need to transport the waste prior to treatment and decreasing the ecological impact of the process even further. This integration is facilitated by the temperatures used: while some other industrial gasification methods imply heating the matter up to 700°C, the 450°C required by this method render the additional modules needed for catalytic hydrothermal gasification easily compatible with pre-existing infrastructures.

When geopolitics fuel the interest for alternative technologies
At this point, the question that arises has to be: where is the catch? If this technology is that good, why is it not used more broadly? Considering that the scientific principles behind TreaTech’s prototype have been around in the academic world for almost two decades, how come the idea did not arise earlier? Of course, an idea always seems more obvious once it has readily been formulated. However, there is more to it. Two big factors are habits and money. Most industries will only adopt big changes when there is an actual need for it. The start-up’s solution offers a great way to re-valorise waste and process it through a circular economy approach, but it implies drastic modifications and investments in a new technology. In Switzerland, the traditional waste-management channel relies on incineration. It is a well-established industry and investments in the installations will only be amortised in 20-30 years. Hence, pushing hydrothermal gasification to an industrial scale takes a good amount of convincing. To achieve such a little revolution, one needs to show the investors what concrete benefits they will get from the project. And some external geopolitics factors might also play their part. Indeed, while social evolutions such as the rise of a global awareness about the climate crisis help valorising the idea of treating waste in an ecologically responsible manner, the recent world crises, and most notably the war between Russia and Ukraine, have reshuffled the cards. Suddenly, the perspective of a constant and reliable biogas production has become a major attraction factor. The new politico-economical context in Europe spiked interest for an independent gas-producing circular economy solution. And the potential impact of TreaTech is far from anecdotic, since treating all of Switzerland’s organic waste with their technology would suffice to generate the equivalent of 83% of the country’s annual gas import from Russia at a price that can be as low as 45 CHF/MWh.

From the engineering dream to the actual game-changer
With these new arguments at play, the start-up has been able to develop new partnerships and will test an on-site real size module next year at a client’s company to get a first industrial reference by 2025. Frédéric Juillard, TreaTech’s founder and CEO, plans on succeeding in this endeavour thanks to a qualified team of twelve that he fully trusts and “whose personalities simply match so well!”. When explaining how his company came to life, the EPFL Life Sciences alumnus mentions his passion for engineering, recalls his thrill during his master thesis in the Silicon Valley, where “all conversations revolve around business” and, most of all, explains he wanted to build something impactful and meaningful. TreaTech certainly meets those criteria. Not only because, as he puts it: “One does not work in the cleantech industry for money. The goal is to see the technology implemented, to make sure it does not end up forgotten in some drawer.” But also because “people are not going to stop going to the toilet anytime soon, so this can really become a game-changer worldwide on the long term”. With a new CHF 9 millions Series A financing collected this summer, his dream gets more concrete every day.

Author: Sophie Rivara

Source: Technology Transfer Office

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