Opinion

Practical testing accelerates sustainable product development in the water sector

Eero Antikainen

Coordinator, Kuopio Water Cluster

27.01.2021

For sustainable development, it is essential to develop new technologies, products and services to face the current challenges in the water sector here and elsewhere. These include water treatment in the mining and pulp and paper industries, as well as issues related to agricultural water load and groundwater management.

Recently, the water sector in Finland has responded to these challenges by investing in research and development, in particular in circular economy solutions such as recovery processes in water treatment and closed water cycles. To turn these into reality, it is required to have the ability to test and verify the functionality of the processes both in laboratory conditions and in actual operating environments, on a pilot scale. In order to accomplish this, the pilot activities must be conducted in collaboration between research institutes, water technology suppliers and end customers in water-intensive industries. This way, technologies related to, for example, nitrogen and sulphate removal for the needs of the mining industry can be developed in real applications, as can recovery processes for rare metals, especially for the production of battery minerals.

The fastest growing technology area in the traditional water supply sector is new smart water solutions and applications brought about by digitalisation, which help to meet the present challenges in the sector. When measuring devices are combined with artificial intelligence and algorithms, new added value and understanding is gained, for example, from the situational awareness of water distribution networks. Anomalies, such as possible leakage situations or water quality contamination, can be detected much faster. In addition, problem areas can be accurately located and evaluations of the development of problems can be produced rapidly. The testing and product development platforms built for the use of companies enable the development and testing of intelligent monitoring applications in a real operating environment in the water supply sector. In the near future, the palette will be complemented by 5G test networks, which will enable the testing of wireless communication solutions as a part of development activities.

The fastest growing technology area in the traditional water supply sector is new smart water solutions and applications brought about by digitalisation

To increase the impact, even more co-operation is needed at the interfaces of different technologies. In particular, the application of artificial intelligence as a part of the digitalisation of water supply creates opportunities for the development of more intelligent and proactive systems. In this respect, new openings can be found not only for the traditional actors in the water supply sector, but also in entirely new areas, such as AI applications in health technology. Correspondingly, the open-minded introduction of new data transfer solutions paves the way for new opportunities for the large-scale deployment of diagnostics and augmented reality applications. Here, for example, the opportunities opened up by the new 5G pilot networks will make a significant contribution to the development and deployment of new applications.

In addition, the introduction of advanced methods can be accelerated by boldly targeting public procurements in cities and municipalities to new technologies. At best, public procurements can lead to the emergence of internationally attractive testing grounds for the development and demonstration of new technologies. These measures can also contribute to the materialisation of new international success stories in areas of high technology knowhow and added value, as well as reforming the traditional water sector towards digitalisation, while making significant impact.

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