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Boston firm generates power while recycling water

Wastewater technology is a crowded field, but this startup has an edge: Its cleanup process yields electricity

California winery executive Brian Hemphill lauds Cambrian’s treatment system, which produces power.

Jan Sturmann for the Boston Globe

California winery executive Brian Hemphill lauds Cambrian’s treatment system, which produces power.

CLOVERDALE, Calif. — Wastewater pools on the concrete floor at Bear Republic Brewing Co.: condensation dripping from silvery tanks, sudsy runoff from a wash-down of the beer-bottling station, hoppy spillover from a mixing machine.

It’s all headed, via pump and drain, to the white, semi-truck-size metal container parked just beyond the brewery’s glass doors.

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Inside, a system designed by the Boston startup Cambrian Innovation will treat the hops- and soap-laced water with two sets of tiny biological organisms that will consume the nutrients and produce electricity and methane as byproducts.

The result: enough energy to offset as much as half the brewery’s power needs and a supply of recycled water that’s clean enough to rinse equipment.

“It’s really potentially game-changing technology,” said April Richards, who is program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency’s small-business innovation research program, which has backed Cambrian with $365,000 in funding.

“It’s where we will go in the future, where waste is a resource and we don’t just want to get rid of it, we want to get energy out of it.”

Cambrian is part of the state’s growing cluster of water technology firms, which hope to grab a slice of a global industry that is projected to grow to $700 billion by the end of the decade.

‘When you think about California, water is really the new liquid gold.’

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Its system, known as EcoVolt, employs a process similar to traditional wastewater treatment, using microbes that feed on the waste to clean the water.

Bear Republic Brewing (above), which produces 75,000 barrels of beer a year, began testing Cambrian’s technology two months ago. The brewery uses 3.5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer; the industry average is five or six to one.

JAN STURMANN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Bear Republic Brewing (above), which produces 75,000 barrels of beer a year, began testing Cambrian’s technology two months ago. The brewery uses 3.5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer; the industry average is five or six to one.

But it is the system’s ability to generate electricity that makes it unusual.

The company uses proprietary organisms, two types of microbes that work in tandem. The first eats organic waste and releases electricity, which the second type converts into high-quality methane, a gas that can be used to power generators.

Cambrian, which employs 20, is proving the technology in California, which has some of the highest energy costs and most severe water shortages in the country. Northern California, where Bear Republic Brewing is located, is experiencing an extended drought.

In 2013, Cloverdale, where Bear Republic is based, experienced the driest year in 400 years, according to the city. This winter, which is the rainy season in the region, rainfall is less than 40 percent of normal, according to the National Weather Service.

California, meanwhile, isn’t alone in its thirst.

Globally, access to adequate supplies of clean usable water has become a challenge as population growth and climate change have made the resource an increasingly precious commodity.

“It’s a multibillion dollar problem,” said Cambrian’s chief executive, Matthew Silver, who hopes his company’s technology will help address the issue. “Water tables are dropping.”

In Cloverdale, residents have been told to cut their water use by 25 percent and encouraged to let their lawns turn brown.

Bear Republic, a family-owned business that annually produces 75,000 barrels of beer, began testing Cambrian’s technology about two months ago in an effort to save water and cut energy costs.

On a recent day, the unit hummed — emitting an odor similar to a cow pasture’s — as wastewater from the brewery moved through white tanks and tubes to be cleaned by the proprietary organisms.

Brewmaster Richard “Ricardo” Norgrove said that he expects to permanently install the system, which he estimates could save the brewery hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The brewery uses 3.5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of beer; the industry average is five or six to one.

“There’s four ingredients in beer, and the number one ingredient is water,” Norgrove said. “When you think about California, water is really the new liquid gold.”

Cambrian, founded in 2006, was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with initial funding from NASA, the US space agency. Its latest break came after Silver made a cold call to the Clos du Bois winery, located about 10 miles south of Cloverdale, in the Sonoma County wine country.

Using what was described as “smooth talking,” Silver got through to Brian Hemphill, the director of operations at the winery, and proceeded to ask about the winery’s wastewater treatment technology.

That system, it turned out, wasn’t performing as well as Clos Du Bois had hoped, in large part because outside of the harvest, the winery could not produce enough wastewater to maintain the organisms used in the process.

Silver persuaded Hemphill to give Cambrian’s EcoVolt system a try.

So a demonstration-size unit went in at the winery in Geyserville. Clos du Bois uses some 20 million gallons of water a year — most of which gets recycled. About 10 percent of that water went through Cambrian’s treatment process.

Hemphill said the system was more flexible than other treatment technologies, working well even when wastewater volumes were low.

The energy production was an added bonus.

“If we were to go to scale on this, we’d be able to produce 30 kilowatts in the off-season,” Hemphill said, “and upwards of 100 kilowatts during harvest.”

That would be enough to power up to about 16 homes, Hemphill said.

Ultimately, the system could have saved the winery an estimated $300,000 a year, but Clos hasn’t installed one on a permanent basis — at least not yet — in part because it must invest in other needs, such as additional fermentation tanks.

But, Hemphill said, “Matt may still sell us an EcoVolt.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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