Skip to main content

Innovations in Wastewater Treatment Chemicals

Innovations in Wastewater Treatment Chemicals

Humanity’s first environmental disaster came as a result of improper water management.

The first large-scale cities emerged in the Middle East along the so-called fertile crescent. This region provided ample space for farming, supported with irrigation ditches pulling water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Unbeknownst to early farmers, the river water was slightly saline. Over generations, dissolved salts in the water accumulated in the soil. This resulted in declining crop yields culminating in ecosystem collapse. The region’s capacity for farming remains impacted to this day.

The importance of wastewater management may not have been clear to farmers circa 10,000 BC, but it’s certainly appreciated by manufacturers today. Wastewater management has ethical and economic implications for businesses around the world. As legislation around water use and pollution continues to grow in scale and scope, the importance of proper management continues to increase.

Let’s look at the wastewater treatment industry: its history, current regulatory context, and technologies employed both past and present.

The History of Wastewater Management

Wastewater management as a discipline began thousands of years ago, almost as long ago as the aforementioned Fertile Crescent societies themselves. Examples of drainage ditches and aqueducts throughout the ancient world demonstrate a recognized need to keep “good water” separated from sources of contamination.

We have to jump forward to the Renaissance before we see more familiar industrialized wastewater management begin to emerge. In the early 17th century, alum production began to ramp up in England. Primarily valued as a dye fixer in the textile industry, alum was a valued resource since antiquity. When shale deposits likely to contain alum were discovered on the British Isles, England imported skilled Italian alum producers to kickstart its industry.

To extract alum from shale, the shale ore must be pre-treated then soaked in water. Water acts as a solvent for alum, which is then purified into a solid salt through evaporation.

Therefore, much of the wastewater generated by the extraction process evaporated into the air—a convenient method for disposal to be sure! The remaining wastewater, often in the form of ore-contaminated sludge, was dumped unceremoniously into nearby rivers.

Wastewater management in the industrial age

Wastewater management in 17th century England was almost as crude as techniques employed in ancient Rome. By the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution and its industrial-scale waste problems necessitated innovation.

Wastewater generated from processes like coal mining is far more damaging than that from historic industries like alum production. The 18th and 19th century demonstrated the toll of unregulated industry on the environment as ecosystems rapidly degraded in the face of unfettered pollution. However, with these environmental challenges came meaningful change. The Industrial Revolution ushered in the first chemical treatments of wastewater. Highly basic chemicals like lime would be used to neutralize acidic water before disposal. Bioreactive wastewater treatments like anaerobic digestion helped improve sewer and septic management. By the end of the 19th century, chlorination was increasingly common. The Industrial Revolution set the stage for today’s technological and legislative contexts in wastewater management.

History of American Wastewater Legislation

Though a patchwork of toothless regional pollution and water conservation laws existed in America from the late 19th century, it would take until the mid-20th century for a more comprehensive legal framework to emerge.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act was tabled and passed in 1948. This legislation focused more on research and funding than enforcement.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act superseded the Water Pollution Control Act. The Clean Water Act was both more comprehensive and more focused on enforcement. It introduced a permitting structure for polluters, introduced fines and enforcement measures for violators, and regulated the discharge of pollutants into bodies of water.

The Clean Water Act received two amendments in 1987 and 1990 respectively. The 1987 amendment required states to develop their own water quality management plans. It also attempted to tackle pollution from diffuse sources like urban runoff and agricultural waste.

In 1990, the Act was expanded further with additional enforcement mechanisms and a broader general scope.

State and local legislation

Federal legislation is only one piece of the complex puzzle that is water pollution law. States have broad power to enforce their own environmental policies. Some municipalities have even more stringent regulations on top of both state and federal guidelines. This patchwork of regulation spanning all levels of government makes wastewater management complex and often costly.

The stringency of wastewater legislation varies widely by jurisdiction. As a general trend, states with highly industrial or natural resource-based economies have looser water laws, while highly service-based states like California and New York have particularly challenging laws.

Innovations in wastewater treatment

Today’s wastewater management techniques extend far beyond the rudimentary technology of yesteryear. Wastewater processing techniques are more effective, efficient, and safer than ever before. Here are a few of the top innovations affecting today’s water management industry.

Smart Sensors and Controls

Smart sensors affect nearly every industrial process today, Wastewater is no exception. One aspect of wastewater management is continual monitoring and testing. In many cases, this is still a manual process to be scheduled and conducted by operators periodically.

With the advent of smart sensors and controls, this process may be automated in many cases. Smart sensors can automatically collect data on things like flow rate, turbidity, temperature, and even levels of particular pollutants like heavy metals. This data can be broadcast in real time to provide operators with up-to-date information.

Smart controls can take automation a step further. They are capable of making adjustments to flow rate, increasing or decreasing chemical dosing, or turning on or off filters, aerators, and other equipment as needed based on live sensor data.

A fully “smart” wastewater management solution can allow your operators to focus their full attention on production, eliminating costly maintenance time.

Advanced Oxidation Processes

First developed in the 80s, advanced oxidation processes (AOPS) are chemical procedures that use reactive hydroxyl radicals to fragment complex organic pollutants into simpler, easier-to-manage molecules.

AOPs rely on oxidants like ozone or hydrogen peroxide to function. When dosed with the right combination or sequence of oxidizing reagents, powerful hydroxyl radicals form in the wastewater. These bind aggressively with most organic and some inorganic chemicals to produce simpler, less polluting compounds. This technique is extremely efficient at reducing the complexity (therefore, the disposal cost) of wastewater. However, it may prohibitively expensive when dealing with large quantities of wastewater. Ongoing research and development have resulted in more cost-effective solutions. Indeed, today’s AOPs are more efficient and effective than ever. As this technology continues to develop, it’s sure to remain an important option for waste management.

Green and Biodegradable Process Chemicals

In some cases, wastewater management involves trading a toxic pollutant for a less toxic option. While there’s a net improvement to water quality, if the process chemical itself is dirty, it limits its efficacy.

Cleaner, greener, biodegradable chemicals can simplify multi-stage waste processes. Take chelating agents for example. A conventional chelating agent is effective at neutralizing metal ions, but may persist in the environment for generations. Their long-term effects on wildlife and the environment are under scrutiny. In many cases, the chelating agent itself must be degraded or neutralized with an additional process.

A biodegradable solution reduces concerns about environmental persistence. Depending on your local regulatory environment, biodegradable chelating agents can hasten disposal processes and lower disposal fees.

The future of wastewater management

Wastewater management technology continues to change and improve. There are many exciting ways that the industry continues to innovate. Here are a few of the top ways that chemical wastewater management is expected to change over the coming decades.

Resource Recovery and Circular Economy

It’s not always the case that wastewater must be disposed of wholesale. In many cases, the pollutants or contaminants present in wastewater have other potential applications. Consider wastewater runoff from agriculture, which has degraded water quality in streams and rivers due to residual fertilizers and soil nutrients.

What if that fertilizer and nutrition could be captured instead of wasted? This recovery-focused model of wastewater management is an emerging science supported by general technological advancement in the field.

Manufacturers are familiar with closed loop processes. The idea of recovery-focused waste management uses the same concept. Whether through physical or chemical separation and extraction, expect more and more wastewater processes to re-use or repurpose “waste” materials.

Advanced Membrane Technologies

The use of specialized membranes to filter and treat wastewater is nothing new. The issue with membrane-based management has often been cost. Traditional manufacturing processes for advanced membranes have proven slow and costly. Advancements in 3D printing are enabling more rapid and cost-effective production, while also opening up opportunities for superior performance. 3D printing allows manufacturers to produce highly specialized membranes with unique pore structures. This custom approach to membrane manufacturing may be a major breakthrough in wastewater filtration.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

The list of fields that won’t be impacted by AI is far shorter than the list of those that will. Wastewater management is very much on that list of impacted fields.

Even so-called “smart sensors” aren’t that bright yet. They can be configured to respond to specific process conditions like temperature, flow rate, or concentration of debris. What they cannot do is adjust their own parameters to continually improve performance.

As facilities become steadily “smarter,” the capacity to not only collect but analyze and apply insights from data will become more prevalent across the manufacturing sector. Imagine sensors that can calibrate chemical dosing down to the millilitre based on the precise complexion of the water to be treated—all without operator intervention. The outcome may be a significant reduction in chemicals used, as well as more consistent output from your wastewater process.

This is just one way that AI and machine learning may impact wastewater management in the years to come.


Wastewater management has come a long way since the early days of agriculture. In fact, it’s come a long way since the ‘90s! As both environmental regulations and wastewater management technologies continue to develop, watch for exciting advancements in the industry. Staying on top of wastewater management can help you stay ahead of increasingly aggressive management and disposal requirements.

Want more insights like this?

Sign up for our newsletter and be the first to get the goods. Dive deeper into the world of chemical innovation and industry trends by signing up for our newsletter today!

Contact Americo

Ready to Get Started?

Value-focused customization is at the core of what we do. Our custom-engineered chemicals are tailored to the unique needs of each facility and process. This high level of customization allows Americo products to consistently outperform generic solutions from leading competitors.

Let's Talk