Novel business from water supply development

Clean water is the oil of the future. The University of Oulu is involved in the Water-M research project, which is searching for methods in information and measuring technology to improve water supply. Simultaneously the project is creating new opportunities for water technology companies.

”It’s a bit like a baby”, says project manager Jarkko Räty, as he takes the imaginary toddler in his arms. “A cylinder 50 cm long, but a little heavier.”

According to project manager Jarkko Räty (left), the importance of automation, real time measuring methods, and secure data management will increase for water supply in the near future. Project researcher Mika Mahosenaho is holding a device which can measure even the smallest traces of metal in water in real time (picture by Lauri Sonny).

The object of Räty's affection is MEAN, the measuring device for small metal contents, whose development began in the University of Oulu about seven years ago. Researchers and the University founded Meoline Ltd., which sells the device to the mining and process industry for waste water control. Now MEAN is taking its first steps in another direction as well.

This direction is called Water-M. The EU research project is one leg on a long journey whose destination is the securing of clean water for humanity.

”At the time when the global population is rapidly growing, while consumption of fresh water is growing even quicker, we must develop new tools to boost water supply”, says Räty. “Water-M is seeking solutions for this on the field of ICT and measuring technology.”

Controlling the problems of water supply requires the improving of both the measuring methods and information security

MEAN is currently the most concrete thing the University is offering Water-M. There is a clear need for the device in the industry, but its role in public water supply remains an open question.

”Now we are going to figure this out. We will go abroad to test the device”, says Räty. As Finland is a land of clean service water, there is no need here for a real time measurement of small metal content. Instead, Water-M is supposed to find answers to global challenges.

One of these challenges is the expansion of water grids and nodes, which increases the risk for pollution and leaking of service water. For example, it would be crucial to be able to quickly locate leaking points in dry regions.

The way to control the problems is by developing both the measuring methods and also the information and communications technology: the data collected by measuring devices installed in the water grid must be transferred and secured. That makes data transfer and data security central in Water-M.

”For example, if we plant sensors in the water system of the city, we must produce a signal with a certain range and deliver it securely to the receiver. In addition, the automation systems are internet-based”, explains Räty.

”Nobody should be able to use these to mess with water processes”

A relevant novel data transmission protocol has been tested in the University of Oulu, one which is not commercially available. The project manager abstains from describing it in more detail, as innovations and potential patents need to be protected.

In the Water-M project, companies are studying commercial potential for innovations, so that no such technology is produced that has no market

After the measurement data has been safely transmitted, it must be interpreted and transformed into useful information. Here the calculation algorithms developed in Oulu enter the picture.

”They are used for making a model of the data, which can be used, for example, in predicting water consumption.”

Models such as this one are being used in the industry, but hardly in waterworks, says Räty. “The water supply sector is a pretty old-fashioned branch of industry. We are accustomed to seeing it work smoothly and without automatics. But that will change.”

The metal content measuring device for waste waters in the process industry was being deveoped in the University of Oulu for seven years. The Water-M project will test how the device suits the needs of water supply (picture: Lauri Sonny).

Both the software and the measuring methods need to be tested, of course. How they work in practice is being studied in the companies involved and in the pilots in Vehmersalmi and in Oulu.

”Public waterworks have been our pilot clients, but naturally we do not yet operate in the public water grid. We install measuring devices and test data transfer, its security, and building models based on the data”, says Räty.

A questionnaire for waterworks was used to obtain guidelines for the develpment work. Foreign collaborators will be using the same questionnaire template, which should produce a complete picture of the kind of technology which is needed around the world.

In local needs, both the follow-up of the shape of the water grid, the processes, and the water quality, as well as the cost-efficiency are emphasized. Related to the latter, companies in Water-M are studying the business environment, commercial potential of innovations.

”So that we do not develop a technology with no market”, says Räty. “The project is intended to create new business for companies. Water supply is a growing market, because waters are getting dirty.”

Water-M culminates in a joint international piloting, which is organized in 2017 in the town of Saint-Étienne, France. “Solutions that have proven good here and in other countries will be taken there for testing.”

Looking to develop a bacteria indicator

Even though Water-M is spurred on by companies and proceeds on the terms of business, the University of Oulu also has an interest for novel information. The project has already spawned a few scientific publications, and more articles and theses are to be expected.

Information accumulates – and research does not spring up from nowhere. “Technology and knowhow has already previously been improved on every sector. Currently existing knowledge was collected together for the needs of Water-M.”

MEAN is the clearest example of this: its development began approximately seven years ago. What might the future innovation be that Water-M kick-starts?

”If someone develops a sensor for measuring small bacteria contents in water in real time and cost-efficiently, they will have a big market”, answers Räty.

Is one in the works, then? Or is it a trade secret?

”Let’s just stay that we are working on it already.”

Text: Jarno Mällinen

Last updated: 25.10.2016