Students Among First to Tour Phoenixville’s Revolutionary Energy-Generating Wastewater Facility
As part of the college’s growing civic, cultural, and economic partnership with Phoenixville, Ursinus students, faculty, and staff got an early look at the nation’s first municipally owned hydrothermal carbonization system, PVXNEO, at Phoenixville’s wastewater treatment plant.
Students in the “Energy and the Environment” linked-inquiry course taught by Professor of Physics Lew Riley and Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Tristan Ashcroft were invited to tour the facility last semester before it became operational.
Previously the borough’s wastewater treatment facility used a biological digester system. “It’s just a big tank,” said Riley. “That’s very commonly the way that waste is handled: Seal the tank and bacteria process the waste. Eventually it ends up clean enough that the water can be put back in the Schuylkill River and the solid product can be spread out over cropland as fertilizer.”
It’s a process that produces natural gas, which can be captured and used, but it’s not fossil fuel. “The natural gas you get out of this bio digestion is actually waste that’s coming in through the sewage. It’s not dinosaurs or ancient stuff that’s buried underground, so it’s actually greener, but it’s still putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” said Riley.
Now at PVXNEO (Phoenixville New Energy Optimization), the hydrothermal carbonization system—which is the first large-scale system of its kind in the United States—waste will be transformed into hydrochar, a coal-like substance that can be used as fuel or fertilizer. It’s expected that the facility will ultimately create the energy it needs to operate.
“It removes the natural gas product from the equation, so it’s environmentally better,” said Riley. “Right now the facility is processing everything that’s coming from Phoenixville sewage lines, but it has more capacity to take waste from other municipalities or organizations. Eventually it might be a place where the college can manage its carbon footprint by sending organic waste there, so that’s exciting.”
Touring the facility before it was operational gave the students not only an opportunity to see a groundbreaking technology, but also the chance to talk to a person who’s one of the drivers behind the technology.
“I got the impression it grew out of a master’s thesis,” said Ashcroft. “We were able to ask, ‘What was the process like in terms of getting this operational? How do you think about funding? How do you think about practicality? How do you think about the future?’”
Students in the class ranged from sophomores and seniors. “None of us at that age necessarily know exactly where we’re going, but maybe there were some connections made that day; maybe in three years or five years students will have moments of, ‘Hey, that was going on in Phoenixville and it now applies to me.’”
Ashcroft is open to future field trips to PVXNEO whenever the “Energy and the Environment” course is offered. “I suppose the day may come when what they’re doing becomes boring and everyone’s doing it, but even at that point, it would still be good to visit and get a sense of what the technique is and how people are being mindful about what we have to solve a problem. Wastewater is going to be around.”