Moleaer has created a novel aeration system that is vastly more effective than traditional models. It injects air in the form of miniscule bubbles only 100 nanometers in size—thousands of times smaller than a grain of salt—that, unlike larger bubbles, spread throughout a water body and do not float to the surface. Moreover, they also remove surfactants from wastewater, increasing the efficiency of treatment processes. In this interview, Moleaer CEO Nick Dyner tells us more about this impressive technology and its uses.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Nick Dyner: I’ve been in the water industry for almost 15 years. I got into the industry through General Electric (GE). I was moving from business to business within GE, and around 2005, I landed in its water business. I fell in love with the industry. I was primarily focused on GE’s desalination business, which produced reverse osmosis (RO) membrane systems for industries like power; semiconductor production; and drinking water for hotels, resorts, and island municipalities.
In 2010, I joined a startup called NanoH2O, and my wife and I moved to Los Angeles. NanoH2O was a technology company focused on developing a new type of thin-film RO membrane for seawater desalination. I was fortunate enough to be the first commercial hire, and I eventually led the sales marketing/app engineering/tech service organization and commercialized the company’s product globally. I got a chance to do business in 92 countries. It was an incredible experience.
In 2014, LG Chem acquired NanoH2O, with successful outcomes for all parties involved. I stayed with the company for about 2½ years to help LG during the transition, teach it about the water business, and help it grow globally. It now has the second-biggest market share in the RO membrane field, which is fantastic to see.
In late 2016, as I was coming to the end of my time at LG, I was lucky to meet the cofounders of a company called Moleaer. I got interested in the potential of nanobubbles for various industries, particularly for the treatment of industrial process water and surface water. In early 2017, I and a few others invested in the company, and I joined the team to help grow the business. Now, 4½ years later, we’ve got over 1,000 nanobubble systems installed globally. Irrigation water is our biggest market, and surface water, including lakes and ponds, are our second biggest. The business has been growing rapidly ever since. I am fortunate to get to be Moleaer’s CEO, a role I have held since the company’s inception.
Municipal Water Leader: Tell us about the history of Moleaer.
Nick Dyner: Moleaer was started by Bruce Shelton, who is our chief technical officer, and Warren Russell, our chief commercial officer. They had previously worked together informally on projects in which Warren was selling his microbiology for wastewater treatment and Bruce was building custom water treatment equipment for various municipal and industrial uses. Warren came across a project in the Middle East in which the client was using his biology in a shallow, temporary lagoon in a high-temperature environment. When water temperatures rise, it becomes challenging to maintain dissolved oxygen (DO) levels that are high enough to allow the microbiology to do its job. Also, it is challenging to use conventional aeration systems to effectively dissolve oxygen into shallow water, because traditional aeration systems only dissolve about 1–2 percent of the oxygen they release per foot of water. If you’ve got a 4‑ to 5‑foot-deep lagoon, you’re only going to get around 5–10 percent of the oxygen transferring into the water before the bubbles reach the surface. It’s really inefficient. Moreover, hotter water holds less oxygen. Faced with those obstacles, Warren reached out to Bruce to see if he could develop a way to make very small bubbles that would take longer to rise to the surface.
While developing the technology, they realized that it was behaving completely differently from what they expected. The oxygen levels were rising rapidly and staying high for long periods of time, even after the system was shut off. This suggested that the bubbles weren’t leaving the body of water. Warren and Bruce filed patents on the technology so that they could explore it further, and they eventually started a business together. They formally incorporated Moleaer in August 2016. Soon, through third-party research and instrumentation, they realized that the bubbles they were producing were on a nano scale. I joined Moleaer after we funded the company in January 2017. In June 2017, we launched our first product, a nanobubble generator with a rate of 200 gallons a minute with a pump designed to focus on wastewater.
Municipal Water Leader: Is your company based in the United States?
Nick Dyner: Yes, we are based in California. We design and manufacture all our products in our assembly facility, which is 15 minutes south of Los Angeles International Airport. We use only our own patented, proprietary technology, and all our systems are designed in the United States.
Municipal Water Leader: How does the technology work?
Nick Dyner: When you inject air or oxygen into water, you form bubbles. As I mentioned before, the bubbles rise, and typically, they dissolve at a rate of only 1–2 percent per foot of water. The bubbles from our system dissolve at a rate of more than 85 percent per foot of water because the vast majority of the gas we’re injecting is in the form of 100‑nanometer bubbles. These gas nanoparticles lack the buoyancy to come to the surface and pop, so releasing them in water is like blowing smoke into a room. They dissolve everywhere throughout the body of water, from the bottom to the surface.
Because we all came from a water/wastewater background, we targeted that market first. Over the course of 6–9 months, as people were hearing about our product’s value proposition, we began to look at additional industries that were interested in oxygenating water more efficiently, including horticulture, surface water, and aquaculture. We started to expand into those markets. Today, more than three-quarters of our business is in industries that have nothing to do with wastewater, including agricultural irrigation; algae and aquatic weed control in lakes, ponds, and canals; fish and shrimp farms; and even oil, gas, and mining. Today, we have 42 employees, primarily based in Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United States, and we’re now entering Spain.
Municipal Water Leader: How small are the nanobubbles?
Nick Dyner: A 100‑nanometer bubble is 2,500 times smaller than a grain of salt. It’s about the size of a virus. At that scale, you can’t see these bubbles, no matter how high a concentration we put into the water. We put between 500 million and 1 billion nanobubbles into each milliliter of water. Even at that scale, you cannot see these bubbles without an instrument. We use a laser particle-tracking analyzer called a NanoSight to detect them.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your technology’s advantages for wastewater treatment.
Nick Dyner: Wastewater is where we got started. Initially, we focused on retrofitting existing biological wastewater treatment plants so that they could increase DO levels more effectively. There are probably thousands of wastewater treatment plants that have outgrown their original designs, meaning that the loading that is coming in exceeds their design capacities. This leads to the constant need for retrofitting, upgrading, and expanding. Our systems increase DO levels cost effectively through a system that is easy to install and allows those treatment plants to successfully treat the amount of wastewater that is coming through. We had some really interesting results, particularly in high-strength biological treatment plants like membrane bioreactors (MBRs), where we were able to rapidly increase DO levels, enabling the plants to increase loading and throughput.
As we started to grow as a business, we looked at more applications and more industries, including irrigation water, aquaculture, service water, oil, gas, and mining. We took our eye off wastewater, but recently we’ve come back and revisited it in earnest as we’ve done larger-scale biological treatment and municipal projects.
We’re starting to understand another benefit nanobubbles provide. We’re going to be launching an educational campaign over the next 6 months based on pilot-scale third-party studies we’ve had done on applying nanobubbles to wastewater treatment processes. We initially could not figure out the mode of action by which our technology worked, because when you add nanobubbles to a waste treatment process, you get an increase in DO, but it is not caused by the bubbles alone. The increases in DO we observed exceeded the amount of oxygen we were injecting. Something else must have been happening to the plant.
We have now learned that injecting nanobubbles actually removes things like surfactants in wastewater. The reason that this occurs has to do with the charge of the bubbles and the way the bubbles separate the surfactants from the waste stream. Surfactants include the soaps that you put down the drain or the chemicals used by industrial users for their daily cleaning. These contaminants limit the ability of existing aeration systems to transfer oxygen more efficiently. One of the reasons that traditional aeration transfers only 1–2 percent of oxygen per foot of water is that the presence of surfactants prevents the bubbles from dissolving more efficiently. In cleaner water with less surfactants, that could rise to 2–3 percent. The reduction in oxygen transfer efficiency of conventional aeration through the presence of surfactants is a concept known as alpha factor, which is familiar to the wastewater treatment industry, particularly aeration companies.
By removing surfactants, nanobubbles enable existing aeration to dissolve oxygen more efficiently. This provides two important benefits. First, it reduces the amount of energy the treatment plant needs to achieve a given level of DO. Aeration consumes about 2–3 percent of the world’s energy. It’s an enormously energy-intensive process and an expensive line item for municipalities and industrial treatment plants. Second, the inverse of this is that plants can now treat more wastewater without having to increase their energy use.
Municipal Water Leader: Are you totally replacing the aeration systems of wastewater plants, or are you enhancing them?
Nick Dyner: For the most part, we are enhancing them. We replace them only if the existing aeration system is no longer operational. Our technology allows plants to increase their DO by removing contaminants without having to redo the entire aeration system. Our system requires significantly less energy than having to redo an entire aeration system.
Generally, we’re not creating a whole pretreatment plant—we’re connecting our system to the head works, a clarifier, or even the aeration basins themselves. There’s a lot of flexibility with installation.
Municipal Water Leader: How large an increase in efficiency can a normal municipal wastewater system expect from implementing your technology?
Nick Dyner: We installed our system at one treatment plant about an hour outside of San Diego that processes 1.4 million gallons of water per day. Moleaer was pretreating 100 percent of the feed water coming through. During the trial period after the plant installed our system, we increased the existing aeration system’s oxygen by 60 percent, improved the plant’s energy efficiency by 48 percent, and increased its treatment capacity by 20 percent. We are planning to install our system at an industrial wastewater treatment plant run by one of the largest food processors in the country so that we can repeat these gains not just on the municipal scale but on the industrial scale. We’ve also increased the loading on an MBR at Bear Republic, a brewery in Northern California, from 10,000 to 17,000 milligrams per liter in mixed liquor concentrations and mixed liquor suspended solids. At the time, we didn’t understand how that was possible, because we weren’t putting in that much more oxygen. We now know that the anomaly we saw was driven by the exact same value proposition: The addition of nanobubbles into the waste stream removed contaminants that prevented the existing system from running at an optimal level.
Municipal Water Leader: What is the estimated return on investment with your technology?
Nick Dyner: It depends on the size of the treatment plant. Typically, we estimate that a municipal customer will see a return on investment in 6–30 months, depending on energy costs and the treatment capacity of the municipal treatment plant. We haven’t run that analysis on the industrial side. Our target is to reduce the operational expenses of each plant by about 30 percent through the addition of our system to the pretreatment process.
Municipal Water Leader: If one of our readers is interested in your technology, what steps should they take?
Nick Dyner: We have a commercial team scattered throughout the United States and Canada. We would connect them with one of those folks or, if it’s more technical, with one of our engineers. The easiest way to get in touch is to come to our website, moleaer.com, and fill out the contact form so that we can direct you to the correct person.
Municipal Water Leader: How long does it generally take to install the system?
Nick Dyner: It only takes a half-day or so to install our system once it arrives on site, and our lead times are fairly short.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your message to wastewater treatment plants?
Nick Dyner: What we’re learning as we’ve started to deploy our systems at more wastewater treatment plants is that a simple plug-and-play process will allow treatment plants to operate at a more-cost-effective level. Let’s see if our process can be a solution for you. Let’s remove the contaminants that are limiting the effectiveness or efficiency of your existing system. We provide a solution that is simpler and more cost effective than trying to expand the old-fashioned way.