Five Innovative Technologies Improving Pharmaceutical Wastewater Treatment

All living things depend on water. It covers most of the planet and doesn’t just support life itself, but fuels many aspects of people’s way of living. Water is as central to modern industry as it is to survival. However, this creates a few complications.

As people use water in various industrial processes, they tend to pollute it. To protect the environment and ensure people have clean drinking water, people need to treat wastewater. In some sectors, like pharmaceuticals, purifying wastewater is critical.

Importance of Water Treatment in Pharmaceuticals

The pharmaceutical industry, like many other areas of life, relies on clean water. To make different drugs safe to ingest, chemists need to use ultra-pure water in the production process. Industry standards like the European Pharmacopoeia even set regulations for water purity in pharmaceuticals.

Pharmaceutical companies aren’t merely concerned with treating water before they use it, either. As they use this substance in various processes, it comes out full of pollutants, as you’d expect of any industry. However, the contaminants that come out of pharmaceutical work can be particularly dangerous to both people and nature.

The manufacturing process introduces a lot of chemical contaminants, both organic and synthetic. Drug companies need to use high-tech purification methods to make sure none of these chemicals gets outside. As a result, the industry is always looking into new technology to clean wastewater.

Here are five technologies improving pharmaceutical water treatment.

1. Membrane Separation

One of the most popular emerging solutions to treat pharmaceutical wastewater is membrane separation. You can find several ways to use membranes for purification, but they all involve forcing water through a film full of microscopic holes. Liquid passes through, but contaminating particles get stuck.

Today’s membranes can filter out far smaller contaminants than their older counterparts. The fibres that make up these membranes, full of millions of tiny pores, would be impossible without modern manufacturing. However, the sophisticated process of making them pays off.

Membrane separation techniques like reverse osmosis can remove 99.5% of pollutants from water. This impressive figure is only possible with pores that are just a fraction of a micron in size. 

2. Irradiation

Another increasingly popular purification solution is irradiation. As the name suggests, this process involves exposing wastewater to radiation to kill off organic contaminants and break apart inorganic ones. Scientists can use any number of different sources for irradiation, from gamma rays to UV light.

Irradiation is especially ideal for taking care of pollutants like hormones and antibiotics. However, its usefulness applies to every kind of contaminant, not just these organic compounds. Some techniques, like ionizing irradiation, can reach almost 100% effectiveness in removing pollutants from wastewater.

As you might’ve guessed, irradiation does come with a few risks. Too much can be hazardous to human health. Similarly, too low a dose can create dangerous by-products. Today’s labs are sophisticated enough to ensure chemists apply the right dosage every time.

3. Nanoparticle Treatment

Nanotechnology, working with objects smaller than 100 nanometers, is one of the most exciting developments in science. You’ll often hear about nanotechnology in medicine and engineering, but some chemists use it to clean water too. Using nanoparticles to absorb pollutants from water has seen a lot of growth lately.

People have been using things like charcoal to purify water through absorption for a long time. Nanoparticle treatment uses this same concept but on a much smaller scale. It uses nanotubes made of absorbent material like carbon to pull even the smallest pollutants out of water.

Nanotechnology is still relatively expensive, so this process isn’t as widespread as others. But with continued development, it will become more affordable and more viable.

4. Bioaugmentation

Some pharma companies turn to biology to purify their wastewater. One of the most popular and promising biological approaches to water purification is bioaugmentation. With this method, scientists introduce a mix of microorganisms to the liquid that breaks down and removes contaminants.

These microorganisms include enzymes and certain, safe strains of bacteria. These organisms naturally degrade pollutants like oils or carbon substrates, so they provide an organic method of cleaning water. Bioaugmentation is usually part of a multi-step process, though, as chemists need to remove the microorganisms after the fact.

Sometimes bioaugmentation has other benefits, too. On top of removing harmful pollutants, it can release nutrients as a by-product, making water healthier all around. This process isn’t as standard as some of the others, but it is steadily growing.

5. Hybrid Technology

Some of the most effective modern methods of water purification are hybrid solutions. More and more pharma companies opt for membrane-bioaugmentation hybrid technology instead of picking one part of the process over the other. Membrane bioreactors are an increasingly widespread example of this technology.

Membrane bioreactors first feed wastewater through a device called a bioreactor. These containers host active biological elements, like the bacteria and enzymes found in bioaugmentation. After the bioreactor, water moves through a membrane, which filters out the microorganisms as well as any leftover contaminants.

The water membrane bioreactors produce is among the cleanest of any treatment process. In addition to that, these systems also allow chemists to recycle some of the removed materials from the water. That added benefit makes hybrid solutions some of the most economically viable options for pharma companies.

Improving Wastewater Treatment 

The pharmaceutical industry can produce a lot of harmful pollutants in its water usage. Thankfully, however, water treatment methods improve all the time, so pharma companies can use water without endangering the environment. These purification techniques are also economically enticing for the pharma industry.

By thoroughly cleaning their water, pharmaceutical companies can recycle it in their processes, saving money. These modern purification methods are useful enough that they can produce the near-perfect level of purity pharmaceutical processes require. By recycling water, these companies also reduce their amount of water waste, further protecting the environment. Pharmaceutical wastewater, if untreated, poses a threat to both humans and nature. Yet advanced treatment technology makes pharma’s water use environmentally safe and economically viable.

Featured image credit: Louis Reed

Megan Ray Nichols

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