‘We have to do better’: Illinois startup seeks to clean up wastewater treatment

The innovative process would let clients remove and reuse heavy metals.

Like many people, I’ve been thinking more about contaminants in water since the Flint, Michigan, crisis a few years ago. I’ve learned an awful lot about the problem, but a few days ago when I spoke to Katie Kollhoff, CEO of Illinois-based NUMiX Materials, she introduced me to a water contamination problem I didn’t know much about: toxic heavy metals in industrial manufacturing wastewater.

The problem: Manufacturing many items — from steel to electronic device semiconductors — commonly produces toxic metals as a byproduct in industrial wastewater. Cleaning the metals from the wastewater uses a large amount of chemicals and generates an incredible amount of waste. The process is pretty universal: Add a ton of highly caustic treatment material that forces the small amount of metals to drop out of the mixture, then entomb the resulting waste and trace metals in concrete blocks, which are sent to a landfill. It’s a waste-intensive process, Kollhoff said, adding, “We have to do better than that.”

The innovation: NUMiX is working on solutions to remove toxic metals from contaminated water using sorbent powders, or powders that absorb other materials. The company’s process requires much less material. For every ounce of the target base, NUMiX can use just one ounce of sorbent powder for a total of two ounces of end material. Plus, the metals can be recovered and reused instead of ending up in concrete blocks in landfill. 

The backstory: A group of students earning advanced degrees in engineering management and law at Northwestern University formed the business in 2018 to find sustainability solutions related to chemical engineering, explained Kollhoff, who has a background in chemical engineering and 10 years of experience in environmental, health, and safety consulting.

The benefits: The company says its sorbent powder process is 10 times more efficient than traditional decontamination processes and reduces chemical additives, waste, and carbon emissions to the tune of 95%. NUMiX has filed two patents for its materials. “Our vision is to be able to effectively, efficiently, and quickly treat those industrial waste processes while also recovering metals that would otherwise be waste,” Kollhoff said. “Why not take advantage of the fact that we already imported these metals once and put it into domestic production?”

What’s next: The lack of access to necessary resources, such as lab space and equipment, during stay-at-home orders has slowed NUMiX’s development and testing work. But employees continue to advance some proof-of-concept work and seek partners interested in collaborating on pilot programs. “We're currently developing other products while we wait for the air to clear,” Kollhoff explained, citing work on projects like viable recycling processes for end-of-live electric vehicle batteries.

I want to hear about the cleantech innovators in your backyard. Share story ideas and news tips with me at katie@centered.tech or on Twitter @centereddottech.


Today’s cleantech headlines:

  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recognized three “Best in Show” cleantech innovators at its annual Industry Growth Forum (held virtually this year). The winners were Locus Agricultural Solutions of Solon, Ohio; Ladera Tech, of Englewood, Colorado; and cove.tool, based in Altanta. (NREL)

  • NREL also announced the third cohort for its cleantech accelerator program with Shell. The startups are all working toward more efficient and effective solar and energy storage solutions: Jolt Energy Storage, based in Holland, Michigan; Icarus, RT, based in San Diego; and BlueDot Photonics of Seattle. (Business Wire)

  • Clean Energy Trust is investing in two early-stage cleantech startups. The Chicago nonprofit is providing capital and support for Renewance, which works toward battery energy storage and electric vehicle lifecycle management solutions, and Iris Light Technologies, which is developing on-chip laser technology that increases the bandwidth and energy efficiency of light chips used in data center networks. (Clean Energy Trust)


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