University of Idaho


Reimagining Wastewater


Bill Loftus


Environmental chemist develops pilot-scale technology to create drinking water

Over nine months, University of Idaho professor Greg Möller transformed a thought experiment into a highly sophisticated trailer-mounted water treatment plant capable of producing sparkling clear, sanitized drinking water from Moscow’s wastewater treatment plant.

This treatment plant demonstrates Möller’s latest invention, N-E-W TechTM. The N-E-W Tech system uses biochar, a charcoal-like activated carbon, to expand the capabilities of Möller’s past discoveries. It promises to remove organic and mineral contaminants in wastewater with high efficiency and generate energy while using the minerals it strips from water to produce fertilizer.

Bringing the Process to Life

Möller is a professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology in the School of Food Science, which is operated jointly by the UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Washington State University.

In March, the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) governing council awarded Möller and his team $427,000 for a one-year project to demonstrate N-E-W Tech’s feasibility — leading to the pilot-scale plant.

The plant also has an educational aspect, incorporating kids’ movie references including a Shrekalizer —   bright green piping  —  and “Frozen”-inspired blue reactor vessels nicknamed Elsa and Anna to inspire young students to study science and offer an antidote to wastewater’s traditional yuck factor.

Möller’s project advanced rapidly based on the IGEM grant’s tight timeline. With a design and fabrication crew led by U.S. military veterans Martin Baker and Gene Staggs, the trailer was operational for testing within four months.

The UI team displayed the system at the Intermountain Energy Summit in Idaho Falls in mid-August to accompany Möller’s featured presentation at the gathering that included Idaho’s U.S. Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernie Munoz.

Behind the Process

Möller would rather see Moscow’s wastewater treatment plant and others rechristened as resource recovery centers, which is the genesis and genius of his process.

Möller’s discovery of a novel water treatment process more than a decade ago generated six patents that underpin efficient and cost-effective systems to remove phosphorus and other contaminants from wastewater. The IGEM project also relies on UI soil science professor Daniel Strawn, who co-invented a patent-pending process using biochar to capture phosphorus and other contaminants stripped from wastewater.

Hayden, Idaho-based Blue Water Technologies licensed Möller’s patents from the Idaho Research Foundation and has developed water treatment systems in use or being installed in the United States, South Korea and England.

“With N-E-W Tech we questioned the status quo and found that small ideas can translate to big solutions with creativity and hard work,” Möller says. “The grand challenges of humankind can often be met by solutions found in nature. We listened to nature and birthed a discovery.”

The natural scenario that Möller draws upon refers to biochar’s capacity as a natural soil amendment. Scientists are increasingly realizing the role charcoal can play in soil fertility.

That recognition grows from research on highly prized Amazonian dark earth or terra preta soils, so named for the high proportion of charcoal and other additions from manure, bones and plant residues Indians added. Dating from 1,000 to 1,500 years ago, the terra preta remains highly fertile centuries later.