In this episode of Engineering Legends, we listen to a conversation that addresses perceptions and reveals the realities of research and innovation, sharing on-the-job success stories when exploring and applying new solutions for some of the toughest challenges in the water industry. Special guests Dr. John Norton with the Great Lakes Water Authority and BC’s Dr. Kati Bell, both internationally recognized for research and innovation in water and wastewater, share their experiences, advice, and how they’re using innovation to address some of the water and wastewater industry’s biggest challenges.
Kelly Rogers: Hi, I’m your host Kelly Rogers here with Tiffany Long and welcome to Engineering Legends. At Brown and Caldwell, we often hear from our clients about how difficult it is to find the time and resources to improve their water systems, especially as your list of priorities and needs get longer. But we know that when our water systems fall short, our communities pay the price.
Tiffany Long: In May, we hosted a lively conversation in our WaterXchange® series, which centered around this challenge and the broader question, how can we think more creatively to solve challenges on a day to day basis? The conversation featured Great Lakes Water Authorities, Director of Energy, Research and innovation, John Norton, and our own director of research, Kati Bell. Both are internationally recognized leaders in advancing the water and wastewater industry.
Kelly Rogers: So for this episode of Engineering Legends, we’re going to listen to this WaterXchange session, where they talk about how research and innovation play a key part to answering that question.
Tiffany Long: In the conversation, they make important points on needing broader collaboration across the industry to learn from and access new approaches and how workforce development and organizational culture are key to enabling research and innovation.
Kelly Rogers: You’ll also hear them dig into the perceptions and realities of what this really looks like in our organizations, and they’ll even share some on the job success stories, making it more tangible for their peers to try.
Tiffany Long: BC’s vice president and Midwest area lead, Tim Block, moderates the dynamic conversation. So without further delay, let’s tune in to the WaterXchange session.
Tim Block: Hello everyone and welcome to the WaterXchange. The WaterXchange is a place that we gather as colleagues in the environmental water and wastewater industry to share lessons learned and just collectively address environmental challenges in our industry. As an industry, our theme today is, how can we best address and solve everyday challenges, day to day challenges that we face within the industry. I’m Tim Block, I’m Brown and Caldwell’s Midwest area lead and I’m going to serve as our moderator today. A little bit about Brown and Caldwell. We’re a 100% environmental engineering firm. Our services for the most part around the water cycle and that includes water supply, water treatment, water distribution, wastewater collection, wastewater treatment, dealing with residuals thereafter. We also provide compliance related services from water remediation and so forth. But again, in all cases, services specific to our environment. In my case, I’ve had the good fortune of working in our industry for 40 years now.
And, I remain impressed with the various challenges that we face and how we utilize research and innovation to address the aerodynamic, never static challenges that we face within our industry. And research and innovation is going to serve as our primary topic during today’s discussion. Before we commence with our panel discussion today, I do want to take care of a couple of quick housekeeping items. Today’s session is being recorded. So for any and all colleagues that aren’t able to join us today, they will have the opportunity to view the session sometime thereafter. We want to facilitate a peer to peer exchange by way of comments and questions that any of you that are patched in might have today. So, there is a chat function to the right portion of your screen. We’re going to allocate 10 to 15 minutes towards the end of today’s sessions to address Q and A.
So please, put your comments in the chat function and we’ll be happy to address those at that time. With all of that said, I’d like to introduce our panelist today. And I’m going to begin with my colleague, Dr. Kati Bell, who’s in charge of Brown and Caldwell’s research group at Brown and Caldwell. The other panelist today is Dr. John Norton, with Great Lakes Water Authority, and John is responsible for energy, research and innovation with the Great Lakes Water Authority. And John, if you don’t mind, I’ll start with you. Can you just tell us a little bit about your role with the authority?
John Norton: Sure. Well, first thing, the Great Lakes Water Authority, we’re a combined utility. We have water and wastewater. We were formed from the split off with the Detroit water and sewer department, when Detroit went through its bankruptcy. Everybody drinks, everybody flushes. So, they had to maintain a stable operational unit, even though that Detroit was having its challenges. We treat a slightly more than 40% of the water for the state of Michigan at five different treatment plants. And then, we provide about just over 30% of the waste water services for the state of Michigan at one single huge waste water treatment plant. I’m the director of energy research innovation and I can talk more about what we’re doing as we progress through this discussion.
Tim Block: Yeah. And John, I should have noted. GLWA, your employer is one of the largest utilities in the nation. So, you’ve got your unique business challenges that way. Kati, in your case, you’re doing likewise for a private engineering firm. So, tell us a little bit about your role and capacity.
Kati Bell: Sure. Brown and Caldwell has made some major investments in research and innovation and especially in recent years. And, our program consists of a leadership team, myself, Dr. Allegra da Silva, my deputy director, our program manager, Jill Stachura, and a new research engineer, Shirin Estahbanati. And, the four of us manage about a 100 research projects that are both internally and externally funded. Our total research portfolio is around $20 million and much of that work is done with utilities, just like John’s.
Tim Block: Okay. And John, a little bit about your role.
John Norton: Yep. Well, since we’re a combined utility, we have projects up and down the water spectrum. So, we’re engaged in source water monitoring projects, water treatment, water quality within the distribution system, as well as distribution asset management in and repair rehabilitation, wastewater collection, CSO reduction, wastewater treatment up and down, as you might imagine at a large wastewater treatment plant, everything from grit to oxygen transfer efficiency, biological optimization and then quite a bit of work with bio solids handling. We produce about roughly 400 dry tons per day of bio solids. We burn one fourth of that and then three fourths go through a dryer that land applied and we’re doing a lot of work in those regions. And then associated with those projects, which are all aligned with organizational needs. We also look at, well, what’s the future going to hold for us? What do we need to do to get in front of stuff? So if you read the news, there’s microplastics is an issue, we have projects in microplastics. We have a lot of projects in PFAS, we’re about to start up a project in climate change and then empower energy resiliency.
Basically, we’re looking at what’s there, how do we make sure that we’re in front of what could potentially happen? And then as we start to actually go into the operations or engineering, what could we do? What could we do better?
Tim Block: Okay. Kati in your case, similarly, how does research play to address emerging contaminants of concern that John just touched upon?
Kati Bell: Sure.
Tim Block: And other issues such as aging infrastructure, workforce affordability and so forth.
Kati Bell: Yeah. So, research is essential to our success as a firm and our impact on the industry. You’ve hit on a couple of key topics that are focus areas for us, really understanding how to get ahead of regulations and responding to contaminants of emerging concern. Also, the aspects of using things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital solutions to help overcome some of the challenges that we’re having in the future around aging workforce and staffing challenges that we have. So, there’s a number of things that we’re evaluating now. We are taking the long view where we’re looking at things that we’ll be able to implement and put into play to help us in the window that’s three to five years down the road.
Tim Block: Okay. And, while we’re taking the long view, there’s still current contemporary day to day operational challenge too.
Kati Bell: Absolutely.
Tim Block: So, can you expand on that a little bit?
Kati Bell: I do. And, I may even toss that back over to John, because he lives it every day. And one of the things that we see is, many of our clients are short staffed. And so, we’re asking our utilities to do a lot more with a lot less staff, a lot less funding. And, I think that’s a critical and urgent issue that we need to address in this industry. One of the things that we’re working on with Great Lakes Water Authority is a training center. And, I guess if you don’t mind, I’d like to flip that back to John to talk about a little bit.
Tim Block: John, please.
John Norton: Absolutely. Yep. This is just critically important for us. And what’s amazing too is, if you go to the other… If you go to meetings around the country, like the Utility Management Conference or WEFTEC or ACE, you could mix and match people and just replace them exactly with someone else and they’re going to be saying the same thing. “We can’t find the people. When we find the people, they’re here short term. Then they go and there’s not long term experience that can help solve problems when they come up. And, there is a lot of… The older folks that have all the wisdom that are leaving. So how do we capture that? And how do we bring that together?” Well, if you think of this, when you think of, well, a training room. What does it look like?
Well, there’s some tables along here, there’s some laboratory equipment and you set something up and you trial it again and you get it again and again. And you screw up, you mess up. This is a critically important thing to recognize. When you’re learning something, you’re not just, “Hey, I’m going to make this soufflé perfect the first time.” Or, “Oh, I’m going to set the…” Heck, whatever the whatever though, if that’s not the way life works. It’s a learning and you fail, you see, you address, you get it again. And, you grow. Well, that’s what we’re looking at, but that same room that does the training aspect, that’s what it looks like if you’re doing research. That’s what it looks like if you’re trialing 10 different types of meters, ORP meters, or pH meters or a probe or an acoustic sensor or whatever it happens to be, the situation is the same.
And we even see that when we go to the university setting in the STEM discipline, there’s the research lab, there’s your training lab and they’re the same thing. Then the final aspect of that is, sort of along with the training and the research is the testing and evaluation. How do you bring something up from scratch when it’s just a new technology that someone might have all the way to… Okay. Now… And that’s where kind of helping them with the constraints that surround the water sector needs. Now we have them, now we have 10 and it’s our need now like, “Well, which one is going to be best for our operations?” If this sensor is excellent, but it’s fairly expensive, but it also doesn’t need to be touched every few months, maybe that’s the one we put in that’s very hard to reach location.
If there’s an easier sensor, that needs to be maintained every couple days, but it’s right there next to the lab at the main treatment plant, well, then that’s an easier one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that fancy level of expense as the other one. Discovering those needs and being able to see what equipment matches up those needs is so critically important. So, we’re trying to put this together to so we can grow and excite the youngsters that are looking at, is this a real career, we have everybody working for the utility, from people with no degrees at all. They got through their high school program and they don’t like book learning, they don’t like that sort of stuff. They’re the hands on type of people. If you are that type of person, we have a place for you.
If you like a little bit more knowledge, and maybe you think of the guys and gals working in the lab and you’re mixing and matching stuff and you’re training, but you’re also using the book and the manual to guide you into learn and grow, we have a place for you. If you want to get a bachelor’s or a master’s or a PhD, we have a place for you. We have 16 PhDs working at the Great Lakes Water Authority. If no matter what level of interest you have from extremely hands on to reasonably academic and all the way from no more education ever to as much education as you ever would want, we got a place for you and we’re trying to excite those kids so that we can get them in and feed them in to be the workforce of the future.
Tim Block: That’s awesome, John.
John Norton: It’s an awesome place that everybody drinks, everybody flushes. This job isn’t going away.
Tim Block: John, I want to build upon some of your points, but also… John, I want to build upon those points, but also expand conversations that you and I have had in terms of finding the right solutions, oftentimes are dictated by the existing infrastructure or the tankage that you have at your disposal. So, I guess to those considerations, would you care to just elaborate a little bit further in terms of pursuing the right solutions?
John Norton: That’s a really good point in a really interesting consideration. Let’s even look at this. If we look at our infrastructure right now for handling our bio solids, we have a multimillion dollar bio solids drawing facility, and a multimillion dollar incineration facility. If we were to come in and go realize that, “Hey, you know what? Your best solution is actually an anaerobic digester, well, we don’t currently have one.” So, we need to accommodate what we currently have or else really, and, or really carefully understand what the future looks like. So oftentimes, we’re carefully modifying something and trying to improve efficiency and then also trying to understand the relevance for the long term decision making, regarding both capital and operational investment, to look at a big picture investment. And it’s like, they’re not done on a dime.
That doesn’t happen. I’m drinking a beverage. If I say, I don’t care for this, I want to drink a different beverage, I have it right there. But if I want to say, “You know what? I don’t want to be me. I want to be like a bodybuilder. It’s going to take me years to get there.” Or, “If I want to, I don’t want to be in a water industry. I want to be a medical doctor. It’s going to be years to get there.” The same with this is, it’s not something that happens overnight. We can’t just switch on a dime. That’s where we need cutting edge consultants, such as Brown and Caldwell to help us figure these things out. Because they see folks all over. It can help bring them to us.
Tim Block: Thank you, John. Kati, what are your thoughts?
Kati Bell: Yeah. And, Great Lakes is one example. We have a number of other utilities around the country that are facing more stringent restrictions around things like nutrient limits. And so, a big focus area that we’ve had is really around process intensification, where we can leverage existing facilities and do more in those facilities. I’ve got a couple of great success stories. I do want to highlight some of the work that our wastewater team’s doing, Dr. Jose Jimenez, who many know and Dr. Pusker Regmi have both done some incredible work around wastewater treatment intensification. And there’s some exceptional projects that have been rolled out around shortcut nitrogen removal, looking at means to reduce chemical addition. And so, through some of the very fundamental research that they have been driving and leading, they’ve been able to save clients literally tens of millions of dollars on projects, because they’re able to leverage their existing facilities through having a deeper understanding of the processes that are occurring in the facilities.
Tim Block: Okay. Kind of a twist on the prior question. I’d like your thoughts on barriers you’ve encountered to innovation.
Kati Bell: Ah, barriers to innovation. Yeah. So, probably our biggest enemy is perfection. And, one of our other enemies is really the translation of something from bench scale or chemistry scale in a beaker, into practice. And that’s why the relationship that we have with Great Lakes Water Authority and our other utility partners is so critical. We can do all of the laboratory work in the world that we want, but until we’re able to scale those solutions through a robust, rigorous process into practice, then there’s no good outcome until we actually put this into play. And so, there’s some really important things that we’ve here at Brown and Caldwell, and that’s around building a program where we’ve invested in staff. We co-invest with our research collaborators like GLWA and we also set expectations that, it’s okay if we fail. As I mentioned, perfection is one of our enemies here. But if we are going to fail, we want to fail fast, so that we can move on to the next thing.
I did mention having a robust process where we can take that beaker solution into pilot scale, demonstration scale and into full scale application where we can then begin to optimize that solution. So, it’s that critical intersection of investment, failing fast and having strategic partners where we can bring solutions to reality.
Tim Block: Thank you, Kati. John, in your case, again from the optics of a public agency, what are examples of barriers that you deal with? Barriers to innovation?
John Norton: Kati got it right, actually, which is really cool.
Kati Bell: Thanks, John.
John Norton: It’s awesome. But the safe place to fail, if you’re going to try something, how do you put this in? How do you get a pilot test of some technology going? How do you integrate it, realizing that there’s going to be some operational demand on it. Even if the staff just have to go for an hour a day and check to make sure that it’s all running okay and not plugged, what are the real world constraints versus what the academic constraints might be? Real world constraints are challenging, because you don’t know where they’re necessarily going to come from at all. In our case, some of our challenges have been just maintaining the proper staff to run the sorts of things. We have a phenomenal team. They’re doing great work and our water’s awesome. And our wastewater treatment is awesome. It’s really good.
But to go and add something else, like a new high-end technology, say golly, we might not have the people that can integrate that. And then what Kati was also finally saying, scaling of technology applications. If we think of let’s say, going from just a chemical test in a beaker to a larger test like a jar test, to then a pilot plant test to a full scale test conditions such as mixing, which go from who cares about mixing at the bench at the lab scale to suddenly mixing is critical at the full scale. How does the energy get dissipated and how do these things work? Think of it when you’re making a smoothie. Now that it started to get hot, you’re putting all your stuff in, you turn it on, it’s going to mix right. And a plunk, it just gets a solid chunk with their ice up here and frozen strawberries here. And the thing is, it all blend together. And you know that if it was blending and all smoothed up, that it would continue moving, but it doesn’t.
It’s blocked up because of this oddball large scale configuration that you just didn’t plan on, because you were looking at the bench scale. Same idea. And then I just suddenly stop talking and I throw it back to you guys.
Tim Block: Okay. Totally fine. John, coming back at you here in this case, can you point to one?
John Norton: Yes, sir.
Tim Block: Research and innovation related success story that either you’ve been personally involved with or that you’ve observed within the industry as a whole.
John Norton: Oh man, you’re throwing all these hard questions at me. So success, success. Oh my gosh. Yes. Actually, a couple of the neat successes that we have had, have been through Kati and have been through other consultants, which I was told not to say their names. But, one of the things that Kati has been doing is helping us figure out our bio solid handling issues. So what they’re looking at, we’re looking at anaerobic digestion, hydrothermal liquefaction and paralysis. Each of those three technology solutions work in the lab scale and in the bench scale and they’re even working at the pilot scale a little bit. But what we’ve done is, we’ve started to focus on well, which and where and how would the technologies work. So, we’ve just published a paper where it’s folks from Great Lakes Water Authority, and then the Metropolitan Water District of Greater Chicago.
They’re like a little East water treatment plant down just down the road from us, on paralysis and how we can and what are the pros and cons and technology limitations of existing paralysis units. This is helping us to identify areas where, “Okay, this is the research frontier or this is not to help us avoid making expensive investments into technologies that wouldn’t work.” So in this case the success is, “Okay, we know not to do this.” Or, “We know that this is an area where we should stay away from.” Not saying that any of those three technologies that I just mentioned or have now been ruled out, but it’s helping us understand where the technology space actually is. In a 100 years, we’re going to be doing these things differently. Everything that we’ll be doing is different. How are we going to get there? That’s through trialing to push that frontier.
Tim Block: And I’ll note, we’re doing things differently now than we did 10, 20, 30 years ago. So, it’s ever evolving to your point, John, thank you. Kati, how about you? One notable success story?
Kati Bell: Well, I’ve got several, but one that I’d like to bring forward is about a topic that maybe isn’t as relevant to Great Lakes Water Authority, but it’s the work that Brown and Caldwell has been supporting a client in the UK with around potable reuse. In the UK, we haven’t really seen potable reuse. We haven’t even seen reuse. There’s no rules or regulations. And so in order to advance solutions to meet water supply demands in the south of England, we’ve actually been using some pretty sophisticated analytical tools, modeling tools. And what we’ve done is, we’ve been able to use some advanced quantitative stochastic modeling tools to prove to the drinking water inspectorate, that in fact, potable reuse may even be safer than their actual current drinking water supplies.
Kati Bell: So what we’ve been able to do is, leapfrog over sort of the purple pipe systems that we’ve had to go through as a stepping stone into reuse in the US, throughout our reuse history and we’re able to leap into not having to spend the capital cost for those purple pipe systems and being able to have an immediate return on that investment to return that water back into the water supplies.
Tim Block: Okay. I’ll give you a bonus. Is there a second one that you wanted to note as well?
Kati Bell: Well, my other favorite recent story is the work that our wastewater team has been doing around reducing chemical cost for nutrient removal. And so, we’ve got a recent project where a client has had challenges with having to add chemicals to meet regulatory goals and a compliance. And, through this deep understanding of the biological and chemical processes in the treatment plant, we’ve been able to save the client a million dollars a year in operating cost. And, in addition to the chemical costs, the operators are now no longer spending time babysitting this chemical feed system. So it’s a win-win for the utility.
Tim Block: Okay. Great. Thank you. Perfect.
Kati Bell: Oh no worries.
John Norton: Other clients. We’re your client. Actually Tim, let me tell you another one. It just struck.
Tim Block: Yeah. Please do, John. You got a bonus one too.
John Norton: It has been 10 or 20 years. Well, how about this? We have pipe in the ground that is almost 170 years old. It was… Maybe the math’s not right. It was put in 1854. What is it now? What year is it? Oh my God. I’m doing this on camera. Anyway. That’s old. It’s older than you Tim. Yeah. And so what we’re doing is-
Tim Block: Amazingly so, John.
John Norton: We’re doing two things. We’re doing two things. First is, when we take out the pipe out of the ground, not all of it has failed. We’re taking it out, because an area adjacent to it has failed. And so, we’ve identified that as a particular thing. Where we’re storing this pipe and we’re going to be using this as a testing bed of like a boneyard to take a look at what do the materials characteristics look like? How do they act after they’ve been in the ground for many, many years? So, that’s a thing. And the other is something I want to talk. This isn’t really… We’ve not worked with you guys as much on this, but this is a wire. Now imagine, this is a tough wire, a wire really that we put in. We relined 180 feet of old ductile iron pipe, cast iron pipe, and then used this and wrapped it around inside, and then put in two different types of holding composite in place.
One was a mortar and then one was a polymer. Okay, fine. Nice stuff. Then we put it back into operations. Here’s the twist. We added on about a quarter million dollars’ worth of sensing equipment to take a look at longitudinal strain, axial strain, temperature, pressure and all this and we have that data with time looking at, well, how does that actually look when we reline a water treatment pipe, this isn’t wastewater where you’re doing, we do this all the time, which is drinking water. What’s it look like after years’ worth of operation? So we’re not dealing with just… We have motors, we have electrical motors that are from the 40s. Things have changed since then. We have to cast parts. How do we do this most effectively? So, there’s all kinds of awesomeness that you we’re pushing the technology frontier on stuff that’s happened a long time ago.
Tim Block: Yeah.
John Norton: It’s awesome.
Tim Block: John, I’m going to build upon your points here, but I’m going to start with Kati and then bring it back to you. So, each of you have been in the biz now for over 25 years. So, I’m curious to hear your perspectives on how research is viewed optically? And Kati from a private sector perspective, I’d like your thoughts there.
Kati Bell: Sure. I’ve been involved in research my entire career. And I remember as a young engineer, really having the perception that research was something that was done in an ivory tower, in academia. And what we’ve seen is this transition of utilities, really seeing the value of having strategic partnerships, not just with the engineering firms who are bringing solutions, but with the academic community, with the technology provider community. And so, we’re seeing collaborations across the board in a way that we never had. And investing in those interdisciplinary relationships is what is enabling us to bring those solutions that we find in a beaker all the way into implementation. It’s that valley of death between the beaker and full scale application that we’ve got to be able to overcome. And the way that we’ve got to be able to do that is through having a diverse team of experts that look at a challenge or a solution from multiple angles.
Tim Block: Okay. Thank you, Kati. John, any thoughts or observations you’ve had, in terms of then and now and how research is viewed and valued?
John Norton: Oh gosh. Yeah. And what Kati said is just so dead on and think of it like this. You’ve heard the story now about how automobile repair folks are a whole different breed, because within the automobile, there’s so much electronics. There’s like a sensor that tells you what’s wrong. You just go replace that part. There’s not all that other hands on stuff. All right. Now, think of some of the things like that. And then some of the things are still the 100 years old. In other words, we have an old model T that’s been driven around. It happens to have a brand new engine in it though. And the engine and the brakes are from the 60s and the transmission might be from the 40s. It’s like, “Good God. How do you integrate all that?” That’s been a huge change in what we realize is actually the needs.
John Norton: The next is the thing is, we have to understand our operators and what the environment they actually work in. And this is something that I think is most challenging. I had an interesting discussion with another, with a professor and he said, “Well, more data is obviously more useful for operators.” And I’m like, “Hold on, hold on.” And I called him on that. And he’s like, “No, no. That’s always going to be better.” It’s like, “Oh, heck no.” The operators are inundated with stuff. They’re like in a cockpit of a modern jumbo jet with just sensors and information all over. I did an estimate. Great Lakes Water Authority generates about 25 to 45 million data points every day. Do we even use them? What do we do with these things? And then the point there is, how do we convert that data into information, that information into actual knowledge and the knowledge into wisdom and actual action?
In other words, you’re going to do something different. We’re fortunate in that we have a power quality team and we’re looking at, we have power, we have energy meters that are good enough to get power quality data out of our system. Not all utilities have that level of breadth, because they’re not big enough to have those resources. So, we’re getting power quality data out. We were having this conversation with the Water Research Foundation a couple weeks ago and they say, “Well, John, what do we do with the data? How do we know? What does it even matter?” Okay. So I have to go back to the drawing board and with my team and go say, “Okay. What is the matter? Is power quality a real thing? Is it actually impacting us? If it doesn’t trigger an actual gearbox, a shift snap and it shuts it off, then is it actually matter? In other, if it’s a constant nick at you all the time, is it bad or does it accumulate damage?”
Well, we have to go figure that out. And that means we have to figure out the data compared to our own baseline fish bone diagram, root cause analysis, see what the impact is. Good god. That’s a new thing to turn that data, lots of data into actual decision actions. Otherwise, we’re just doing research for the heck of it. And we shouldn’t bother spending the money for those fancy sensors or whatever knowledge that we’re doing. That has to be the goal is to help out the operators. Everything else surrounds what the operators need to meet permit level, public health in the ecological health.
Tim Block: Thank you, John. Kati, earlier just touched upon the value of collaborating with other consultants, with academia, with vendor, manufacturing suppliers and whatnot. John, you touched upon work with other research associations as well. There seems to be in more recent times, joint collaboration, utility, utility in the research and innovation space, like to get your thoughts and observations there as well.
John Norton: Absolutely. So, we rely on innovation from other utilities to drive what we’re doing, because there’s no way that we could be the best at everything. Let alone even really the best at any one thing. We have to rely on others where we’re pulling in that knowledge. So, we work with the Water Research Foundation. We’re subscribers there, we’re collaborating on a number of projects. I think at last note it was about 40. We rely on excellent consulting firms, such as Brown and Caldwell with Kati to connect us together with other firms that are doing work. Collaboration like this is just critical, because we have an ongoing meeting with Hampton Road Sanitation District and Denver Metro and Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and a few others where we just discussed some of these problems. This collaboration helps us to understand, “Well, what are they seeing and how do they address this problem and how can we bring this back to help our own team?”
And then oftentimes, our team will have a solution to that can provide them some ideas and we’re not competing against each other. If we’re Exxon, we’re terrible, it doesn’t impact Cleveland or doesn’t impact Denver. So, it’s a really… So in other words, if we can improve the ability for us to collaborate, it’s just a benefit to everybody. And that’s where we really appreciate those collaborative and those coordination roles that you guys can help us play.
Tim Block: I’m going to pivot to a different topic. And Kati, I’m going to start with you for a private firm that is interested in establishing a research group, research team, any thoughts or observations or lessons learned in this case that you can share in that regard?
Kati Bell: Sure. And, I’m going to harken back to a couple of things that we talked about before. I really think there’s three big things. The first is having commitment to investment at the highest levels of the organization. That’s both funding, which is oftentimes easier to get than staff time. That’s almost one of the toughest resources to get ahold of. And setting expectations about how staff will spend that time. I also mentioned that sitting at expectations about some of the experiments or projects will fail and we need to have that safe space to fail fast and move forward. And then, having that robust process Brown and Caldwell has developed the technical exploration and confirmation process, which really gives us a platform and a robust process that allows us to have quality control as we identify, validate, implement, and optimize innovative solutions. And so, we do that over the entire swath of market sectors that we serve. It’s the same process, even though it’s a different research topic.
So, those are the things that I would point to as a private firm, that would need to be in the hopper in terms of the governance around a robust research program.
Tim Block: And you mentioned earlier, it’s the long game.
Kati Bell: It’s the long game.
Tim Block: Keep the long game in mind.
Kati Bell: Yeah. It’s hard to think about research showing a return on investment within a one year period, which is typically how we think about business planning. And so, that mindset shift to looking at three to five years down the road, or even further, has really been a huge asset to our program. And, so appreciative that we have the senior leadership that’s willing to invest.
Tim Block: Kati, thank you. John, in your case for public agencies that may have aspirational goals of establishing a research team, or just embarking on that or that segment of their business, any thoughts or observations that you can offer in that regard or lessons learned?
John Norton: Absolutely. There’s an author out there, Clayton Christensen, who’s written on the Innovators Dilemma and the Innovators Solution. And there’s another, there’s a body of literature around innovation across all sectors. One of the things is, you have to have a discrete staff, even if it’s just one person. You cannot have a person who’s director of engineering and director of research or director of operations and director of research. The reason being is that, they have real things that they’re trying to achieve, that’ll constantly suck up their time and you need to have someone that could just sort of float around and be curious. Not to say that they’re not doing work, but they need to be able to go find that problem and then spend some time with it, perhaps at more time than the local staff have.
And that’s the whole idea about having an external team. You need to have a small budget, a real budget, but a small budget. You don’t want to provide the funding to give them, to give that individual everything that they want. You have to make them work for it. And what I mean by that is two different things. Probably, half of the projects that my team is working on and managing are actually funded by other entities throughout the Great Lakes Water Authority. We’re doing a very significant project on dynamic and I’ll say intelligent sewer systems of modeling and modifying how the sewer system collects water during a rain event, so we can keep as much water in the sewer volume as opposed to, into the streams and sewers there. Our pilot plant project up at our Lake Huron facility was again, out of a different budget.
That’s what Brown and Caldwell was hired to do for the design build project, for that particular effort. But you have to… And then likewise, externally, we’ve been able to bring in… Sorry. Lots and lots of funding from the USEPA, from the Department of Energy, from the water research foundation by leveraging our own little bit of a seed money and when we kick it off. If we can’t get other people to join in with us, even just to join in on an [inaudible 00:39:31] basis, it must be either really important to our team, or it’s probably not as important as you think it is. Otherwise, other people would agree to also look at it. And then finally that thing that Kate was saying, again, safe place to fail. If we try a project and it doesn’t work, are we getting any benefit out of it? And to say, “Well, look. Did you drive revenue? Did you improve…”
Whatever. Say, “Well, hold on. We may have just prevented a very significant investment into a failing or a non-applicable technology by focusing on the entirety of the benefit and not just that bottom line. That’s a very important aspect to it. You may be very well just… You could have failed, you tried something and it didn’t work. But now the team knows, and is a stronger team because they still participated in the process of assessing that technology. Discreet staff, small, but distant budget and a safe place to fail. Finally, I’d like to add just one little bonus in that, you want a curious team doing this. You don’t want a team that’s like extremely linear process thinking. You want that team going and running the water treatment plan or the wastewater treatment plan, because you need to meet that same process, time and time again, to meet permits and to maintain your legal obligations.
But, you want the curious team out there and not the team that’s going to try to find and fix every problem according to their background. You want someone that has an ability to find everything interesting. “Oh, squirrel. Oh, neat.” That’s what Kati teases me about, because I can find anything interesting. But the fact is, you got to have that person that can find interest into your problem. You, the operator, you, the engineer, has a situation. What is it? “Oh, okay. I see what’s going on. I can go take a look at that.” As opposed to, “Well, I did this other research over here and I’ll apply machine learning to everything.” Oh baloney. That may not be the solution at all. And if that’s your only background and that’s the only thing you’re willing bring to the table, you’re not doing your utility a favor.
Tim Block: John, building upon your point on you want a curious team, let’s briefly touch upon-
John Norton: Yes, sir.
Tim Block: Culture. Culture by way of workforce training, sponsorship, promoting diversity of thought, comments there in terms of culture within the context of research.
John Norton: Oh heavens. And, that is probably the biggest and best question you could ask. Because the culture of your environment is going to have lots of people with different ways of thinking about problems, solutions. They’re going to be the totally risk adverse to the extremely risk takers. You’re probably not going to have a lot of risk takers at a water or wastewater utility, but they do exist. I’m an example of one and we have others. “Sure, let’s try this. Let’s try that.” So when you develop that culture, you have to understand that you’re going to have a whole variety of people at the table and they’re going to have their own decision matrix, their own sense of what needs to be done next. Some of them are going to be wildly alert and enthusiastic. Others are going to be challenging and sad. You may have people that just had a… They just lost an employee.
“Oh my God, how am I going to possibly do this? And here’s John saying these things and…” Yeah, that would be nice. But my gosh, I don’t have the people to do the job I need to do right now. By understanding that your team is going to have that diverse set of expectations, diverse set of cultural background of workplace, meaning of workplace responsibility, you can begin to understand that, “Hey, you may be excited about something, but you might be the only one at that table excited about it.” Understand what’s going on with the other people? Even if it’s like, “John, this is fine. I’m just having a bad day. And you’re listening to what’s going on.”
Tim Block: Thank you, John. Kati, I’d like your thoughts on culture of innovation, promoting a culture of innovation.
Kati Bell: It is. And, I think I alluded to this earlier is that, when we have a challenge, having the ability to see a challenge from multiple perspectives, gives you a lot more opportunities for what the solutions can be. The other piece of that is, we need to have a culture of listening and not just listening, but also hearing. And so, many times we are tied to specific areas that we are trained in, and it’s sometimes difficult to jump out of that. We have a basket of widgets and we want to go sell those widgets. So for us to be able to have diversity in thinking, diversity in people, we have a bigger opportunity of hearing different perspectives. And that’s what enables us to bring home, what is the problem that we’re really trying to solve? And then we go find the solution for the targeted problem, as opposed to carrying around our basket of widgets that we’re trying to sell. So it is. It’s a really critical aspect of what we do, so that we do have this multifaceted, multi perspective approach to identifying and solving challenges.
Tim Block: Great. Thank you. Before we move to Q and A, I’m going to give each of you just an opportunity to offer any final remarks that you wanted to share or offer just in the realm of research and innovation? Kati, I’ll start with you.
Kati Bell: Sure. The take home message, I think that I’d like folks to hear today is, what we touched on about what has changed in our industry. And it’s really about the collaboration and the knowledge sharing that’s happening now, that I think has been facilitated by organizations like Water Research Foundation, WEF, AWWA and many others. The ability for us to collaborate with our clients, with other consultants, technology providers, academics, that is where we’re really getting that diversity of views on challenges and solutions and that collaboration is ultimately what’s going to end up helping us win the game.
Tim Block: Thank you, Kati. John, any additional or final remarks from your perspective or final takeaways you’d like to share with those patching in today?
John Norton: This is a neat job. We’re doing something that, when we’re stuck in our own industry, maybe we don’t realize how other folks don’t even pay attention to us, or they take us for granted. If we didn’t have drinking water, we’d be burdened pretty quick. But think of this. How many days could you go without flushing your toilet? Good heavens. We’re providing some of the fundamental basis for all of humanity to survive. And when I… There’s a question that’s coming in and I’m going to actually shift over that, regarding the upcoming question and answers. It’s like, what is our favorite research project or topic that we’re not currently pursuing? And one of the things about that I think of as, I’ve gone into the high schools and my wife and I… My wife’s a university professor of engineering. We’ve gone into the schools and we’ve talked about STEM disciplines and STEM programs.
And it’s like, the kids, there’s bright eyes that started asking questions. And it’s like, “I want them to realize there’s first… There’s all kinds of neat opportunities out there.” If we happen to excite them and then they come and they look at waste water and water treatment and our big pumps and our big systems and they want to go into automotive or chip manufacturing or whatever else, Hey, good for them. Now, they have a life in front of them. But a lot of folks don’t even realize that there’s things like this involved. You work for a water utility. So, I just make a joke. Yeah. I clean toilets and I don’t even tell. But it’s the reality is that, you can have an advanced degree. I have a PhD and yet you can be still doing something useful here. There’s a lot of stuff that’s still going on. And that’s, what’s the amazing thing about it. And I want to see if we can excite or at least open up our youngsters to the ideas and opportunities that are out there.
Because golly, heavens are some neat things and Hey, we have a job and everybody drinks, everybody flushes. You’re going to have a job for the rest of your life. We can’t outsource that to anybody. And it’s nice in Southeast Michigan.
Tim Block: Yeah. Well, thank you Dr. Norton and thank you Dr. Bell. John, you just addressed one of the questions that was in the chat. But at this point, we’d like to open it up to those of you that are patched in today, to the extent that you have any questions or comments that you’d like to share with the panelists today? Please, we’d like to hear it from you.
John Norton: How do I get into research and innovation?
Tim Block: Oh, okay. You’re ready. Go ahead, John.
John Norton: Well, I was 29 years old and I was working at a consulting gig with another consulting firm and I realized I really liked to teach and I went back. So I just decided, I’m going to go back to school to get my PhD, because I wanted to be a university professor. Even though I interviewed at a number of different schools, didn’t get any opportunities, ended up working a bit and just got this job opportunity and when I was first being recruited, because I’ve worked in energy, I’ve worked in research clearly with a PhD and I’ve been interested in innovation since I was in high school. The recruiter reached out and I was like, “Okay, who’s putting you up to this? This is a joke, right? Because this is the best job ever. I can’t believe I get to do this.” So, I got there really quite lucky.
And I guess, it’s the idea of being professional, looking enough with a nice shirt and whatever that people think that you’re responsible. And at the same time, being curious enough and enthusiastic enough to say, “Look. This is a really interesting problem.” Wires and these things, well, if these things fail, we don’t provide water. So, my wife happens to be a metallurgist. She teaches material science at a university here at the University of Illinois. We’re working together. We’re talking about how metal wires fail. Really? You two are adults with your advanced degrees and that’s something so basic. It’s like, “Yeah. Because if we figure this out, we can prevent a lot of problems.” The basic fundamental things are still unknown. There’s so much that’s unknown and that we can help bring to reality to make the world a better place for all of us.
Tim Block: Kati, I’m going to ask you too. How did you get into research and innovation?
Kati Bell: Well, and as I mentioned, I’ve been in research in my whole career and I think there’s something that’s I’m fundamentally curious and I’m going to reveal this. It’s probably not a big secret. I also fundamentally have challenges with folks that say, “We’re doing this because it’s the way that we’ve always done it.” And I oftentimes think there’s got to be a better way when I see a plant operator or a process and that’s what gets the wheels turning. And so, I have a very diverse background talking about diversity. I have an undergraduate degree in chemistry, master’s in biology, one in civil engineering, one in environmental engineering. And I find myself doing more chemistry and biology as an engineer, than I do engineering as an engineer. And so, it’s really been that cross disciplinary training that I’ve had and that combined with the curiosity to seek out solutions.
I think the other thing, we didn’t talk about this, John. But, you and I both believe that we can be truly inspired that only gets you a very small fraction of the way down the road. You’ve got to be incredibly persistent. And I think about one of the projects that I’m the most proud of in my career and that’s bringing parasitic acid disinfection to the North America. The first time I ever tested it was in 2007. And the first plant that went online was 2016. So, I pushed… Thanks, John, for the plug. I pushed on that for nine years before actually went into play. And so, I was inspired when I saw the research and the literature and the data, but it was nine years of hard work to bring it to fruition.
Tim Block: That’s a great story and a story of persistence.
Kati Bell: Yes.
Tim Block: Well done. Here’s a great question that we did receive. And Kati, I’m going to start with you. How do we leverage research to advance Environmental Social Governance, ESG?
Kati Bell: So, it’s funny. We’ve talked about this a lot and I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Y’all remember back in the 90s and the early 2000s when we had triple bottom line. Well, ESG is sort of a renaming of TBL. It’s a lens that we should be looking through for every single thing that we do in this industry. We’re already in an industry that’s doing something that better society. We’re providing clean drinking water and sanitation. That’s what differentiates us from other parts of the world that are not as wealthy. And so, if we think about that, we’re already working in that lens. And so, how can we expand the benefits? How can we look at interactions and integration of different systems, so that we can reduce carbon emissions, reduce the cost to customers that have affordability challenges. And so, I think it’s that lens that we need to continue to look through and work through as we advance our industry.
Tim Block: In recognizing disadvantaged portions of our communities.
Kati Bell: Absolutely.
Tim Block: And one to that again, factor into our solutions that we pursue.
Kati Bell: Absolutely.
Tim Block: John, do you have any further thoughts there in terms of research and its relevance to ESG?
John Norton: It’s not exactly going to answer the question, but I think that the idea Detroit is having, it’s nearly lowest level of unemployment in the last 50 to 60 years. And at the same time, if we drive around Detroit, we can find pockets of folks that are either unemployed or underemployed. And what I want to do is, provide them an opportunity to step in without any fancy degrees, to get a job, that is a career job and to also enable them the opportunity to step on up. So, that idea of what’s missing that you wish you could have there, that is a training center that folks could show up and they get this understanding of, “Hey, these things are going on.” We just had a meeting this morning with an in Palencia Mobley, the assistant chief engineer and deputy director of DWSD was pointing out.
She has basic staffing needs with skilled trades, and just skilled workers to figure this stuff out. They have to be like a… Her description was a universal soldier. There’s so many different things that you have to know how to do to get out there, to keep the water pipes and the wastewater pipes actually working. Those jobs are real jobs that are paying jobs there. They’re with the benefits and such. It’s not a quick time service and those sorts of things are there. And so, that’s where to reach out. And how do you do that? How does that training center look like? How does the K through 12 education look like? How do we bring these things into the picture?
Tim Block: Thank you, John.
John Norton: So, there you go.
Tim Block: Here’s another question. John, I’m going to start with you. The question is, when we speak of innovation, in what ways do we see technology enhancing the distribution and collection of water?
John Norton: Oh heavens. Oh, that’s a neat one there. We’re just about to start with a satellite leak detection project, which is going to use satellite imaging to detect water loss in areas throughout the city. And then, we overlay where we found the water loss with the pipe network underneath and we go, “Oh, okay. Lot of water there. That likely is a leak.” “Well, hold on, John. It just rained.” You can’t say that this is a water from a pipe. Yes, we can. We can actually tell the difference between coordinated water and uncoordinated water. Isn’t that amazing? Now, we’ll be able to take swimming pools and such, but there you go. What new technology is this? When you go read in the news that the scientists found water on Mars, we’ve not [inaudible 00:56:57] Mars, despite the great documentary stirring Jason Bourne, we’re using that same satellite imagery to look at our network grid and figure out where they’re leaking. We have other stuff going on. When this wire breaks, it emits a loud ping right now, that we put in acoustic fiber optics that detects that ping.
And there’s a ping from here and you sense it. And, there’s a ping over here. It’s the same way when, how bats use echolocation to determine where they are and how far they are from a steeple before they land at the church steeple, and then turn back into Dracula. So, we’re using new sensors that didn’t exist and we’re hooking up acoustic sonar sort of acoustics to figure out when the leak is and to look at the pipe condition as assessment. There’s another one that’s just fantastic. Well, Ecologics. They hook up sensors to the… Am I allowed to say Ecologics? They’re not a competitor to you guys. I don’t think. You hook them up to the pipe and then you whack it and the acoustic goes up and down the pipe. And the integrity of that pipe is reflected in the way that the acoustic wave traveled up and down. It’s like, oh my gosh. So these new technologies are, they’re currently cutting edge and we’re trialing just about all of them because we’re big enough to do that, but there’s, oh my heavens.
It’s just awesome. The things that we’re doing regarding distribution, and now that’s the structural element of the distribution. Other stuff that we’re doing, looking at the water quality within the distribution system happens to look at emerging pathogens, how do we provide extremely bio stable water, so that it limits the regrowth of stuff? How do we aim that, so that when we distribute, we treat the water and then it goes through miles of pipes that it doesn’t fall outside of the bounds of what it needs to be. Elma heavens. Okay. There you go. I’m going to hand it back to you guys.
Tim Block: Yeah. Thank you. Kati, do you have any further thoughts on water distribution and this relevance of innovation?
Kati Bell: No, I think there’s a lot going on with condition assessment that we can leverage from other industries. And that’s one of the things that we’re doing is, we’re looking at fields like industries, like the oil and gas industry and taking tools and techniques to do condition assessments from that industry and bringing it to the water wastewater industry. So, that’s been a big focus area for our teams here that are looking at distribution collection systems. So, we can certainly dig into that more. We’ve actually also just finished up a water research foundation report 4917. That’s available to folks to look at some of the things we’ve been doing.
Tim Block: Okay. Thank you, Kati. We have time for probably one last question. I’m going to go to one that’s posted here. Kati, I’ll start with you. And then John, have you expand upon that. Public utilities are conservative by nature. How can we reduce the risk of innovation for utilities?
Kati Bell: And again, this goes back to having a rigorous, robust process of scaling. And it’s interesting. We actually look at some of our clients in different sorts of buckets in terms of we have early adopter clients like GLIWA, who are willing to take on and test and trial some of these solutions. Oftentimes you’ll see five years of installations, five years and 50 is the magic number. And then you’ll start seeing some of the other innovative folks beginning to bring those technologies on board. But really, in order to de-risk and overcome this conservative view of innovation, we’ve got to be able to show success in a step wise progression where we’re showing that de-risking.
Tim Block: Thank you, Kati. John, any further final thoughts there, from your perspective?
John Norton: Understanding the utility constraints and then understanding the difference of scaling up from different scales are probably the two biggest things. We have to provide water all the time. When we don’t provide water, we either kill people or we make the front news either way. How many times have the folks in the audience had their computer restart in the middle of something they’re doing? That can’t happen for us. How many times have you been on a call that’s dropped because, “Oh, the antenna switched over and it didn’t do it right.” We just call the person back. But if you’re doing with water, we can’t have that. Plus, if you look at what are the actual constraints? When Netflix sends you… Well, they used to. They send you the discs and you would have the pile and what was actually watched versus not watched.
Why should watch? I should watch these movies, because these are the things that I know would benefit me to have watched to them. But instead, we watch the action movie or the spy movie that doesn’t have any literary awesomeness, that it’s a fun, easy thing to do. Well, that’s the same thing with the utility in its decision making. Oh, well of course we do these things. Well, what is the actual decision making underlying that decision? And then the scaling of it. Small scale versus big scale. We’re looking at trying to deal with energy extraction from our bio solids. We also have a lot of grit. Our bio solids may range from 40 to 80% in organics. Okay. Well, what can we do about this? Grit is actually amazing. When I first got this project, here I am 52 years old.
I was in my late 40s, PhD, I’d never seen it as an issue. But, grit is a particulate flow in a three dimensional Navier Stokes environment. And Navier Stokes equations haven’t been solved and they’re part of the million dollar millennial prize of the big seven, now six big math questions. Holy cow. So, if we have a system that we put on a multimillion dollar system to turn energy into magical fuel, but it clogs up because of the grit that we’re getting, we failed. And so, in order to overcome the resistance to these things, we need to understand what are the actual constraints and what are the actual operating conditions. And that’s so safe place to fail, safe place to trial.
Tim Block: Great. We’re going to put a wrap…
John Norton: Thank you very much.
Tim Block: …in today’s discussion. I do want to thank Dr. Norton and Dr. Bell. Again, thank you folks for joining our WaterXchange session. We hope it’s been of value to you today. Again, our goal is to have a peer to peer conversation to address challenging issues here in the environmental industry. So, thank you for joining us today. Our session has been recorded, so it’ll be available for others to review at a later time. Thanks again.
Kelly Rogers: So, thanks for joining us today. That was a great conversation with John Norton, Kati Bell and Tim Block. They really did answer that question, how can we think more creatively to solve challenges on a day to day basis? So, thanks for tuning in.
Tiffany Long: We know that many of our listeners have their own engineering legend stories. We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your feedback, stories, and ideas for future episodes. You can reach us at email@example.com. This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and our passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving. Until next time.