Why the north is making waves with water technology – The Northern Times

Terschelling is surrounded by water, with the Wadden Sea on one side and the North Sea on the other, and it’s set to become a hub of water technology in the coming years: in March, NHL Stenden representative Frank Gort announced the plans of building the new, sustainable Victoria Campus on the island.

As the Leeuwarder Courant reported, the center is set to be a collaborative project between said university of applied sciences, FB Oranjewoud (a real estate company) and the local municipality.

The scope of the multifunctional campus, where construction is aimed at being in 2025, is huge, as are its ambitions to be the site of world-class, ground-breaking research on sustainable tourism and heating using sea water, among others.

Friesland, which is home to Terschelling and three other Wadden Islands, is the Dutch province perhaps most synonymous with water: Friesland is famous for its complex network of waterways and good sailing conditions, and a popular destination for water recreation.

What is considered normal for the Netherlands still creates quite an impression when compared to other countries: I will never forget the expression on my friend’s face when she learns that an entire province, Flevoland, had been reclaimed from the sea. Nowadays, the Netherlands is home of many innovations concerning water with most projects focusing on sustainability and – more specifically – combatting the many challenges posed by climate change.

For any Dutch province or region to claim the title of water province is quite a boast in a country that is primarily below sea level, but the north in general and Friesland in particular make a strong case. The northern Dutch provinces are home to outstanding industry and research centered around water – and water technology. But what is water technology, exactly? And what role does it play in the industry?

“That’s a difficult question”, laughs Gerrit Veenendaal, the director of NieuWater, located in Emmen in Drenthe. His company filters water for industrial purposes, making it ultrapure, which is an important sector within the industry.

According to the Dutch government, the water technology sector’s main goal is “providing top-quality water”, with an additional focus on “keeping pressure on the living environment as low as possible”.

That covers a wide range of tasks. There are multiple water purification companies focused on making water usable again, be it drinking-quality, safe for the environment or even ultrapure for industrial purposes. Dealing with pipeline systems, managing transmissions and potential leakages is another side of the industry. Even though most of this work goes unnoticed by the average person, it is crucial not only for our daily functioning, but also for tackling renewable energy, providing sewage water treatment, overseeing water in the pharmaceutical industry, water installations, and more.

The water industry and its innovations at research hubs in the region even attract international attention. Since 2018, the European Water Technology Week has been hosted in Leeuwarden, and some new partnerships were formed during the 2022 edition, such as the Canadian cleantech accelerator joining Water Alliance. “The north is definitely doing well in water technology”, states Veenendaal.

Even though companies compete, they still work more efficiently if they engage in collaboration. The Water Alliance is a unique partnership of more than 100 public and private companies, government agencies and knowledge institutes involved in water technology in the Netherlands.

The (future) Victoria Campus on Terschelling is far from the only example in the region revolving around water technology. Another similar facility, Wetsus, has been around for years, but gained prominence with the construction of a striking building in Leeuwarden in 2015.

Most of the actors concerned with water technology in Friesland are part of the Water Campus, a platform for private and public entities and a place to exchange strategies and ideas. Its headquarters, a spacious, modern building near the Potmarge river, is home to Wetsus: a vital research hub, connecting knowledge production with its practical application.

Wetsus was founded in 2003 as a bundle of several leading companies working in the field of water and prominent academic institutions. They describe themselves as “European center of excellence for sustainable water technology”, but put more plainly, it is a meeting place for companies and educational institutions, created to bring in new, practical solutions.

The dual focuses at Wetsus are sustainability and innovation. As director Cees Buisman, likes to say, “When you’ve haven’t been ridiculed, you are not innovating”. Projects undertaken at Wetsus do sound a little like science fiction sometimes, but they aim to solve very practical, everyday problems. Their topics of interest are simply everything that deals with water on the industrial level: sustainable tap and sewage systems, water-saving irrigation, effective decontamination or even nano-gels used to combat bacteria growth. Basically, anything that involves water and needs new studies can fall under the jurisdiction of Wetsus.

“We are inspired by nature, and each other, too”, says Rouèl Gnodde, Wetsus’s science communication specialist. He is more than enthusiastic about the research going on there. As he leads a swift guided walk through the labs, he throws in brief explanations of the complex scientific studies being done by the PhD students and staff there. “Water is a big thing”, he says, and he wishes people knew more about the importance of water and would value it more.

At a time when the natural environment faces is endangered on multiple fronts, we need sustainable solutions more than ever. The main research themes of the hub are driven by challenges the industry faces today: drought resilience, healthy environments and sustainable water, and recovering resources. They currently have 60 projects in 23 research themes where PhD students and researchers try to work on modern challenges, such as how can biologically-activated carbon actually clear water from micropollutants.

Another fascinating projects at Wetsus is focused on super fluent pipes. Inspired by fast swimming sharks’ riblets, PhD candidate Mirvahid Mohammadpour Chehrghani wants to research ways to improve pipe systems. Pipes with lower resistance means better water flow, less bacteria pollution and lower pumping costs. A seemingly simple change multiplied by the 130,000 kilometers of water mains in the Netherlands can matter a lot.

Such research is also crucial for NieuWater, a company providing pure water for industry purposes. The city of Emmen in Drenthe is home to their main facility, Puurwaterfabriek. When complex, expensive machinery is powered by water vapour, the less salts and minerals it contains, the better. NieuWater’s filtering techniqueensures that clients need not worry about any sediments from water in their industrial processes.

Instead of the more commonly used environmentally unfriendly chemicals, the company has a secret ingredient: BODAC. It’s bio-activated carbon, which is a type of charcoal with a particularly large surface area, where lots of bacteria can grow. Because it has so much space, it has a larger capacity for filtering pollutants as well. It was recently observed that BODAC also removes micropollutants, such as medicines or even just shower gel, from water, which can have serious effects on human health, aquatic life and pose a challenge for industrial pure water. NieuWater hopes that better understanding how BODAC removes micropollutants can help to further enhancing and sustaining the effect.

The less-green part of the story is that water from Puurwaterfabriek goes to Shell’s Energy Park Pottendijk. The plant presents itself in a positive light: it is a solar and wind energy initiative that marks the firm’s efforts for a sustainable transition. However, as many environmentalists have pointed out, the company’s climate goals are not sufficient according to the Paris agreement. Its small-scale green initiatives are nowhere near balancing it out.

“Water technology is not just technical. There’s also a societal part of it”, says Veenendaal. That means all the innovation and changes brought about as a result of the sector’s work, but also how people approach it. He says it can be tricky to persuade the general public about the importance of various water filtering techniques, and how precious of a resource water is, even if we don’t realize it in daily life. “I wish people better understood how important water is”, says Gnodde.

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