GE, NRG back Israeli water-to-energy startup


Technology to turn wastewater – from city sludge ponds or food processing plants – into electricity has long been attractive to investors. Now an investor consortium that includes GE, NRG Energy and ConocoPhillips (called Energy Technology Ventures) is making its first such bet in water, by funding Israeli technology developer Emefcy, the companies said Tuesday.

Emefcy, which is using naturally occurring bacteria to treat wastewater and produce electricity, is getting an undisclosed amount from Energy Technology Ventures as well as Pond Venture Partners, Plan B Ventures and Israel Cleantech Ventures.

The Israeli startup, founded in 2008, said it will use the money to develop the technology and deploy it commercially by the end of this year. Emefcy will market its process to cities and owners of industrial systems, from food to pharmaceutical processing plants.

Emefcy is developing a microbial fuel cell that uses wastewater as fuel to produce electricity. The company claims its process is less energy intensive than aerobic or anaerobic digestion technologies. The process also yields treated wastewater that can find other uses. Recycling wastewater has a mass appeal for countries in parched regions of the world, such as the Middle East.

The idea to produce energy from wastewater, particularly from human wastewater, isn’t new and has been explored by other companies and academic researchers around the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently gave $1.5 million to a research project at Columbia University to develop a waste-to-energy technology to make water treatment cheaper for poor communities and to minimize wastewater contamination of local rivers and lakes. Many research institutions and companies also are studying and developing microbial fuel cells.

The same cost savings and environmental benefits are driving similar innovations in other parts of the world. Wastewater treatment today uses 2 percent of the world’s electricity supply, or 80,000 MW, at a cost of $40 billion per year, according to the press release about Emefcy’s funding. Deploying wastewater-to-energy technology isn’t cheap, so driving down that expense could help the technology get deployed more widely.

Emefcy is the first non-U.S. company that has lined up investment from Energy Technology Ventures, which made its debut in January this year. GE, NRG and ConocoPhillips said they will invest $300 million via the fund in a wide variety of technology areas, from solar to coal conversion. The fund’s portfolio companies include Alta Devices (ultra-thin solar cells), CoolPlanetBioFuels (biomass to fuels), and Ciris Energy (coal-to-methane conversion).

Image courtesy of Emefcy

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