World Bank eyes Chilean water treatment for use in Africa

Award-winning Chilean start-up Biofiltro exhibits its environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment technology in Washington D.C.

Untreated wastewater runs directly into water tables in many countries around the world. (Photo: CEE Bankwatch Network/Flickr)
Untreated wastewater runs directly into water tables in many countries around the world. (Photo: CEE Bankwatch Network/Flickr)

Chilean company Biofiltro burst onto the international scene in November 2011 when it was awarded first prize in the “Global Ideas” section of the Clean Tech Open, held in Silicon Valley.

The competition brings together thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs from around the world, in a search of the next “big ideas” for the many environmental problems confronting planet Earth.

Biofiltro – which began 17 years ago as a small start-up with the support of national entrepreneurship agency  InnovaChile and Start-Up Chile – not only took home the US$100,000 prize, but also caught the attention of the World Bank, which has invited the Chilean company to exhibit its work in the U.S. capital in February.

The exhibition is part of a showcase designed to find ways to combat one of the most urgent problems confronting millions of people on Earth: access to clean water.

Though clean water is taken for granted by most people in the developed world, it is a precious commodity in many developing countries and can literally be the difference between life and death.

In 2010, the same year that access to clean water was declared an essential human right by the United Nations, the international organization said that more than 2.6 billion people didn’t have access to hygienic water, while some 900 million didn’t have access to potable water.

Compounding the problem, infectious diseases like diarrhea – which is one of the most deadly diseases on earth – flourish in the untreated wastewater that many people around the world are forced to drink and use in agriculture.

The technology designed by Biofiltro aims to alleviate this issue and is designed to be cheap and efficient, so as to have the maximum impact in developing countries.

“We are a business with simple and sustainable technology, which is necessary in Africa,” said Matías Sjogren, one of the company’s founders.

The system’s treatment pools use a layer of sawdust and worm castings. Bacterial flora present in the castings act to treat the water, which is then run through a stone filter. The process is repeated until the water achieves a purity level of 99 percent.

While the treated wastewater is not suitable for human consumption, it can be used in the irrigating crops, preventing the contamination of food and the infections normally caused by this process.

And whereas other wastewater treatment leads to the byproduct of toxic sludge, the Biofiltro process generates more worms and compost, creating organic fertilizers and animal feed.

“The system uses 80 percent less energy than traditional plants and doesn’t generate contaminated material, as the compost can be used as a fertilizer for other industries,” said Sjogren.