A science man, Professor Mark van Loosdrecht invented Anammox, a breakthrough wastewater treatment method that reduces the energy needed as compared to conventional ways. The 2012 winner of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is working on taking water treatment a step further: recovering useful materials making the process pay for itself.
Professor Mark van Loosdrecht’s love for nature inspired him to devote his life to ecology and to water. His passion is finding the best ways to provide clean water around the world. It is his devotion to science that led him to find a sustainable solution that significantly reduces the energy required to clean wastewater by the time he was in his mid 30’s.
Back then, as an assistant professor of environmental biotechnology at the Delft University of Technology ( In his native Netherlands – where he has lived all his life), he was fixated on finding ways to combine biology and engineering. He was looking at how the biological life forms such as plants, animals, bacteria and fungi can be harnessed to develop environmentally- friendly engineering solutions, and at Delft he achieved a breakthrough by identifying an unique group of bacteria that could remove nitrogen from wastewater without the presence of oxygen. This breakthrough enabled him to create an energy-efficient, sustainable water treatment solution called “Anammox” that is now used in treatment plants around the world. The process can help authorities treat municipal wastewater and solid waste, as well as big industries such as food, fertilizer, semiconductor, petrochemical, and metallurgy cut down on their carbon footprint.
The Dutch have always had an intimate connection with water. As more than half the country is at or below sea level, the Dutch have over the centuries become experts on water management, born out of a necessity of having to defend their land from the elements of the sea using windmills, dikes and levees for more than a thousand years. Examples included using organic matter to produce energy in the form of biomass, or tapping microbes found naturally in oil-rich environments to clean up oil spills.
Van Loosdrecht was instrumental in building the world’s first demonstration plant using the Anammox process in Rotterdam in 2002. At Delft, van Loosdrecht was assigned to study microorganisms in bioreactors, specifically biofilm systems – or organisms that stick together and form a layer on a surface, such as in pipes or in fish tanks – and how these systems can improve wastewater treatment processes.This process is called ” nitrification “, and is needed as too much nitrogen in water causes health problems to humans and to marine life. This breakthrough shortened the time needed for the ammonia removal process in wastewater treatment and also reduces the chemicals that need to be added into the water tanks to break down the ammonia. Anammox can reduce energy required to introduce oxygen by up to 60 per cent and slash carbon dioxide emissions by up to 90 per cent compared to conventional nitrification processes.
Today, there are 29 full-scale Anammox plants developed by Paques (licensee of Prof van Loosdrecht’s technology) in Netherlands, Austria, China, Japan and USA in operation around the world. About three years ago, Singapore national water agency PUB conducted a trial of the anaerobic ammonia oxidation based technology with positive results on improving energy efficiency. The success of this project was well received in the media following a recent site tour by members of the local community with Irish Water and Cork County Council in attendance among others.