🌊Water Tech Week: How sensors and digital data are transforming water monitoring

Welcome to Day 2 of Water Tech Week here at Centered. We get to kick it off with some timely news from The Water Council in Milwaukee, which today launched the fall round of its Tech Challenge, which carries up to a $15,000 prize for winners. The competition is for water quality sensing and/or remediating solutions that have high potential for commercialization. The initiative then matches entrepreneurs with corporate sponsors seeking new technologies.

I’ll give you a look at some of the existing water innovations coming from the Midwest. See the projects after today’s tech headlines.

Today’s headlines:

🏭 COAL: Black Hills Energy in South Dakota is helping the University of Wyoming test a new technology called flameless, pressurized oxy-fuel to burn coal with almost no carbon emissions, reports the Associated Press.

🥤 PLASTICS: A study led by Ohio State University shows a previously unknown way that certain bacteria produce the chemical ethylene, and it could pave the way for new ways of producing plastics without fossil fuels.

***SPONSORED LINK: Minnesota heating tech startup 2040 Energy wants your opinion. Click here to take our survey and help shape the future of clean energy heating!***

🚚 TRANSPORTATION: Electric truck startup Bollinger Motors, based in Oak Park, Michigan, released a concept for an electric van to be used by delivery companies. A variety of battery pack options will be available.

AGRICULTURE: Argonne National Laboratory researchers developed a chip etched with microchannels that helps to uncover insights about plant-microbe interactions. This could advance agricultural science including engineering drought-resistant crops, producing bioenergy crops, and environmental remediation.

Now, back to water. The innovation happening around water and technology crosses a lot of different sectors such as energy and agriculture, but many projects have common threads: more digitization and advanced sensors.

“Everyone’s talking about sensors. People want to detect things and they want to do it faster and get more information… Information is gold,” said Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council. “Another major trend is digitization — the automation systems or artificial intelligence creating insights or opening opportunities in the water space. Like creating a digital twin of a wastewater treatment facility so machine learning and intelligence can be brought into that space.”

Although a plethora of water technologies are being developed throughout the Midwest, many of them are being deployed directly in or along waterways. Therefore, plenty of these projects come from communities adjacent to rivers or lakes — especially the Great Lakes.

Real-time river water quality

A pilot project from Chicago nonprofit water innovation hub Current, called H2NOW, uses sensors, data analytics, and other technologies to monitor the Chicago River’s microbial pollution in real time. Water quality fluctuates daily, and making the real-time data publicly available will let people make more informed decisions about how they use the river. H2KNOW is touted as the first project in the country that allows the public to check real-time microbial pollution in their local waterways. This also expands Current’s work to reduce nutrient runoff into the Mississippi watershed.

“The problems we create here in Illinois are affecting downstream communities as far away as the Gulf of Mexico… This is a really important illustration that so many local problems with water have a larger impact. It shows the connectivity of the ecosystem and economy,” said Alaina Harkness, Current CEO. “We think of ourselves as an ecosystem cultivator, but also an innovation accelerator.”


Current also is the leading partner for the inaugural Chicago Water Week, which will take place Sept. 28-Oct. 2. Virtual events will bring together diverse stakeholders to highlight the importance of water to the city’s economy, environment, and society. “Chicago Water Week is an example of the ecosystem work we’re trying to do — having very strategic and focused conversations and having the right people in the room,” Harkness said. “It will be a way of connecting strategically the many aspects Chicago has related to water: big industry, tech, and utilities, to name a few.”

A LimnoTech water quality monitoring buoy near Toledo.

Pollution-sensing buoys

LimnoTech, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, began releasing high-tech buoys into the Great Lakes about eight years ago. Originally the devices mostly provided weather information, but they have evolved into complex water quality sensors.

“The more recent buoys look at water quality in real time for decision makers such as water plants,” said Greg Cutrell, environmental scientist at LimnoTech. They have started placing water sondes — sensors that measure multiple water quality characteristics — at almost every water plant between Toledo and Elyria so operators can make decisions based on what they’re seeing. LimnoTech also is moving into real-time monitoring of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrates in water.

Notable fact: Nutrients in water significantly contribute to algal blooms, which are a huge problem in Midwest waterways during the summer and are worsening with climate change. The blue-green algae can make humans and pets sick. Groups across the Midwest are working to mitigate the problem, including scum-sucking technology developed by employees in Dane County, Wisconsin.

“A lot of water projects now focus on having data in real time. I would say that’s really exploded since the Toledo water crisis in 2014” when an algal bloom made the city’s water undrinkable and unsafe to touch for three days in August, Cutrell said. Real-time data allows for quicker action in response to problems.

LimnoTech is working to create lower-cost monitoring technologies to make Internet of Things capabilities more accessible across the water quality industry. The company is advancing long-wave radio technologies to place along Lake Erie and transmit small pieces of data, which is a more cost-effective option than other advanced sensors for some monitoring purposes.

High-tech stormwater analysis

Greenprint Partners uses digital modeling and data analytics tools to design, finance, and implement green stormwater infrastructure in communities to reduce water pollution and flooding. The Chicago business recently was one of the 10 startups chosen by the Exelon Foundation to receive funding for new technologies to mitigate and build resiliency to the impacts of climate change.

“We were founded to make sure new technology goes into neighborhoods and communities where it can do the most good,” often in low-income communities and communities of color, said Hannah Grooms, senior project manager at Greenprint Partners. “One of the things that sets Greenprint apart is our benefits-driven design process.”

Tomorrow for Water Tech Week, you’ll get insight from subject matter experts on recent changes to how innovations make their way through the tech pipeline.

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