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Beyond NEWater: An insight into Singapore’s water reuse


prospects
Olivier Lefebvre

Abstract up to four billion people in regions that are generally


Indirect potable water reuse has been implemented island- already vulnerable, action is required to rethink our
wide in Singapore over the last 15 years. Nowadays, water water consumption paradigms [3].
reuse provides in average 30% of the nation’s water demand
and the so-called NEWater success story has largely contrib- As a tiny island-nation off the southern border of con-
uted to turning Singapore into a global hydrohub for pioneering tinental Malaysia, Singapore faces many challenges: lack
new water technologies. In this context, this short review pre- of land and natural resources, highly urbanized densely-
sents the latest technological advances and the perspectives populated environment, etc. With total renewable
for water reuse in Singapore. Areas of focus include mem- freshwater resources of 0.6 km3 and a population of 5.6
brane development (including forward, reverse and pressure million, corresponding to less than 110 m3 per capita,
retarded osmosis, as well as membrane bioreactors), Singapore’s water situation is comparable to that of
advanced oxidation processes, electrochemical approaches, Libya, Jordan or Sudan and makes it by far the most
and their integration as cost-effective tailored solutions to water scarce country in South East Asia. Historically,
tackle new challenges as diverse as direct potable reuse, in- Singapore has relied on Malaysia for its freshwater
dustrial water reuse, decentralized water reuse and the circular supply but has started looking at water reuse as early as
economy. the 1970s [4]. Though at that time, membrane tech-
nology was deemed unviable economically, the assid-
Addresses uous technology watch that ensued later led to pilot
Centre for Water Research, Department of Civil and Environmental demonstration in the 1990s followed in the 2000s by
Engineering, National University of Singapore, 1 Engineering Dr. 2,
island-wide implementation of NEWater, the brand
Singapore, 117576, Singapore
name given to reclaimed water by Singapore’s Public
Corresponding author: Lefebvre, Olivier (ceelop@nus.edu.sg) Utilities Board (PUB). Nowadays, 4 NEWater plants
supply in average 30% of Singapore’s water demand, a
number which is expected to rise to 55% by 2060, at
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 2018,
which point of time NEWater production could be as
2:26–31
high as 440 million imperial gallons per day (mgd).
This review comes from a themed issue on Wastewater and reuse
Edited by Paola Verlicchi and Paolo Roccaro Resorting to water reuse frees space for more valuable
For a complete overview see the Issue and the Editorial land usage in a megacity and is more energy efficient
than desalination. Most importantly, it is the strategic
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.coesh.2017.12.001
goal to render the country self-sufficient water wise that
has contributed to larger public acceptance in Singapore
2468-5844/© 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
than in neighboring Australia for example [5]. Indeed,
even though the NEWater success story is generally
Keywords attributed to the seal of quality underlain under the
Advanced oxidation processes, Decentralized water reuse, Direct branding of NEWater, which encompasses different
potable reuse, Electro-Fenton, Forward osmosis, Industrial water reuse.
layers of trust in technology, experts and government
[4], research has demonstrated that the primary reason
for acceptance was the positive discourse dominantly
Introduction circulated by the media, which allowed the overcoming
The 2017 theme for World Water Day was ‘wastewater’, of visceral reactions, also known as the ‘yuck’ factor [5].
which can defined as water whose quality has been In particular, the development of a thick narrative,
deteriorated by agricultural, industrial or domestic use associating the issue of water reuse to water security and
[1]. Concurrent to World Water Day was the launch of environmental constraints, making it imperative to
the World Water Development Report 2017 entitled recycle water, has contributed largely to the NEWater
‘Wastewater- The Untapped Resource’ which refers to success story [6].
wastewater as the new oil, emphasizing the vital
importance of water as a natural resource, which in many Singapore has adopted a highly centralized approach to
parts of the world is taken for granted [2]. With climate water reuse with a treatment train consisting of primary
change expected to shift water availability over the sedimentation/activated sludge/microfiltration (MF)/
world, emphasize geographical disparities and threaten ultrafiltration (UF)/reverse osmosis (RO)/ultraviolet

Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 2018, 2:26–31 www.sciencedirect.com


Beyond NEWater: An insight into Singapore’s water reuse prospects Lefebvre 27

(UV) disinfection. Thus, the core technology behind Fig. 1


the production of NEWater is pressure-driven RO,
which allows particle separation primarily by size Concentrated Concentrated
exclusion through pores ranging between 0.2 and 0.4 nm Wastewater Brine
[7]. At this pore size, permeate is literally solid-free,

Reverse Osmosis
Forward Osmosis
including no emerging contaminants, metals, salts, vi-
ruses or other micro-organisms. The downsides of RO
consist of high energy requirements and membrane
fouling, which are mitigated through pre-treatment,
consisting of successive stages of primary clarification,
biological treatment, and low-pressure MF (0.1e
0.2 mm)/UF (0.01e0.02 mm). In the unlikely event of
RO integrity breach, UV post-treatment ensures that
Diluted
the permeate remains free of any microbiological con- Wastewater Brine NEWater
tent at all time. Following this multiple-barrier Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health
approach, NEWater surpasses the WHO drinking
water quality guidelines [8] at a cost below SGD0.2/m3 Combination of FO and RO processes for energy optimization. The RO
and a fraction is directed towards industries requiring brine would play the role of the draw solution in that NEWater production
ultrapure water (e.g., in the micro-electronics sector) scheme.
while the remaining enters the reservoirs for reminer-
alization and indirect potable reuse (IPR) [4].
treatment of urban wastewater, alone or in combination
with other technologies as an element of a multiple-
State of the art of water reuse research barrier process in water reuse schemes. Unlike mem-
Membrane development branes, AOPs are destructive methods that cause the
RO constitutes the core technology behind water reuse cleavage of structural bonds and induce the conversion
but high energy requirement and brine management of the initial pollutant into several intermediates at a
constitute serious drawbacks. The main benefit of RO is rate higher than natural processes [12]. AOPs are thus
its ability to deal with salinity removal. For pathogens applicable before membranes processes to decrease
and emerging contaminants, it could well be substituted fouling or after in order to remove micro-pollutants that
by a more cost-effective multi-barrier approach implying can pass through. Disadvantages of AOP technologies
a combination of biological, adsorption, MF/UF and include the formation of oxidation by-products that, in
advanced oxidation processes (AOPs) [9]. certain circumstances, can accumulate in water and be
more toxic than the parent compound. For example, O3/
Among alternatives to RO, the recent years have H2O2 and UV/H2O2 can lead to either the formation or
increasingly emphasized the promises of forward osmosis the degradation of bromate [13], polyfluorinated com-
(FO) and pressure retarded osmosis (PRO) [10]. By pounds [14] or halogenated disinfection byproducts
making use of a draw solution to naturally drive the os- [15] depending upon the conditions. N-Nitro-
motic process, FO benefits from drastically lower energy sodimethylamine (NDMA) has been particularly well
consumption and fouling propensity as compared to RO; studied and was found to form only when AOPs are
however the product of FO is not NEWater but a diluted applied before RO [16,17]. However, AOPs can produce
draw solution that requires secondary treatment. This more-reactive NDMA precursors persisting in RO
implies that FO and RO may not necessarily be mutually permeate and enhancing NDMA formation during final
exclusive and in fact they could be combined for energy chloramination [15e17]. Because both the AOP dose
optimization with RO concentrate being used as the and the nature of the matrix play determinant effects, it
draw solution for FO (Fig. 1). This approach is particu- is necessary to carefully evaluate these effects before
larly promising for inland water reuse solutions where implementation for water reuse [18]. A summary of
brine disposal is not an option. In Singapore, the inherent various AOPs and their advantages and disadvantages is
limitations of FO such as the need for better membrane compiled in Table 1.
materials [11] still limit its applications in the near
future. PRO however could constitute a promising Electrochemical approaches
avenue to generate hydropower from RO brine provided Electrochemistry is increasingly regarded as a core sci-
sturdier membranes are developed that can withstand ence for the development of a sustainable society from
the high pressure of concentrated brine [10]. fuel cells to waste electrochemical oxidation, desalina-
tion and water reuse [21]. Electrochemical AOPs are
Advanced oxidation processes attracting a lot of attention, owing to their many ad-
AOPs, based on the generation of hydroxyl radicals vantages, including use a cleaner reagent (electricity),
($OH), have been successfully implemented for tertiary possibility to reach superior degrees of mineralization,

www.sciencedirect.com Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 2018, 2:26–31


28 Wastewater and reuse

Table 1

AOP comparison.

Technology Advantages Disadvantages

Ozonation (O3/H2O2, O3/Fe2+, O3/Fe2+/UV) Field-proven Formation of oxidation by-products, air


permit required for ozone emissions, off-
gas treatment system for ozone
destruction. High operational costs due to
low water solubility.
Photolysis (O3/UV, H2O2/UV) Field-proven, disinfection effect of UV Interference from turbidity. High cost of
UV. Limited range of UV.
Heterogeneous photocatalysis (TiO2/UV) Works in a wider range of UV than If TiO2 is used as a slurry, a separation
photolysis such as UVA (300–380 nm) step is required. Supported TiO2
technology shows promises in this sense
but has yet to be scaled-up.
Conventional Fenton reaction (H2O2/Fe2+) Yield not affected by water quality. Highly No full-scale application. Optimal pH ca.
Affordable due to high solubility of H2O2. 3.0a. Generates high amounts of iron
sludge.
Electro-Fenton The most potent of all AOPs. Can be No full-scale application. Requires acidic
automated. No chemicals except for pH ca. 3.0. and continuous supply of O2.
catalytic amount of iron (<0.1 mM),
electrochemically regenerated at the
cathode of the system. Little sludge
production.

a
(Solar) photo-Fenton has been widely investigated in the last few years as tertiary treatment method for urban wastewater reuse and it was found
that it can be operated under milder conditions (pH in the range 5–6, lower concentrations of iron and H2O2) [19] because for the removal of
contaminants of emerging concern (typically occurring in the range of ng/L) and bacterial inactivation the smaller amount of hydroxyl radicals
produced compared to pH 3 process is sufficient. Moreover, the use of complexing/chelating agents has been successful investigated too [20].

versatility, high energy efficiency, amenability of auto- salinity over time within the bioreactor, which can
mation and safety [22]. Electro-Fenton (Table 1) is adversely impact sludge viability [32].
rapidly emerging as the most promising among electro-
chemical technologies [23], especially upon combina- Direct potable reuse
tion with nanomaterials such as graphene [24,25] or Direct potable reuse (DPR) is presented as the new
boron-doped diamond (BDD) to promote anodic frontier of water reuse [9,33]. The key aspect for such a
oxidation as an extra source of $OH [26]. scheme to succeed is treatment redundancy in a
multiple-barrier approach, which can lead to practically
In contrast with other membrane processes, Electrodi- inexistent probability of failure [34]. Sinapore has many
alysis (ED) relies on charge exclusion and is a techni- advantages to implement DPR. First, the PUB already
cally and economically viable alternative to RO for manages the whole water cycle from drinking water to
brackish water desalination, especially for small plants wastewater treatment. Second, the management of
[27,28]. The less stringent feed quality for ED as NEWater in Singapore has already proven to be trust-
compared to RO contribute to lower the pre-treatment worthy over a decade. For example, over 300 persistent
costs. Finally, capacitive deionization has shown poten- organic pollutants are already routinely monitored [4].
tial to increase water recovery from RO brine despite Nowadays, it is possible to monitor many of these com-
cleaning issues [4,29,30]. pounds at concentrations as low as parts per trillion [35].
This is however a two-edged sword in the sense that
compounds present at such low concentrations may
Perspectives cause unnecessary concern and ultimately the quality of
Membrane bioreactor water from a DPR scheme should be compared to that of
The next approach to water reuse in Singapore will be a conventional drinking water scheme, in order to avoid
the development of the membrane bioreactor (MBR) unnecessary cost escalation. Also, because it is not
that combines the benefits of secondary treatment and possible to follow every pathogen or compound, online
MF/UF in a single vessel, with the main benefits being a sensing of both indicator compounds and performance
compact structure and consistently good effluent qual- surrogates (e.g., UVA, total organic carbon, etc.) will be
ity. This MBR-RO approach has already been explored needed [36]. It has recently been indicated that DPR
at the pilot stage in Singapore [31]. A recent develop- would be more sustainable without use of RO mem-
ment is the FO-MBR with the advantage of energy ef- branes [37]. Ultimately, more than regulations it is
ficiency but the drawback of low flux and increased essential to apply a sound risk management strategy [38].

Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 2018, 2:26–31 www.sciencedirect.com


Beyond NEWater: An insight into Singapore’s water reuse prospects Lefebvre 29

Industrial water reuse Fig. 2


Singapore differs from the rest of the world in that in-
dustry and not agriculture is the prime water user
representing 55% of the demand, a number which will
increase to 70% by 2060. With NEWater targets of 55%
of water supply, the situation creates a new challenge to
(i) supply high-quality water for pharmaceutical,
chemical, biotechnology, electronic sectors, etc. and (ii)
be able to reprocess the wastewater from the above-
mentioned activities. Typically, wastewater contami-
nated by industrial activities is enriched with bio- INDUSTRY
recalcitrant organic compounds [39]. At this time, there
is still no gold standard for the treatment of such Electro-
Process Wastewater
wastewater. The promises of AOPs in this field are real Fenton
[40]; yet at the moment there still exist some limits
related to the excessive consumption of reagents at high Ensure no toxicity
concentrations (COD > 10 g/L) of organic materials to
sustain the production of $OH [41]. In contrast, elec- Biological
trochemical AOPs such as electro-Fenton work over a Treatment
broader range of organic loads (0.01 < COD < 100 g-O2/
L). In an industrial water reuse scheme, AOPs are ex-
pected to be more cost-effective when used as pre- Ceramic
treatment prior to biological degradation. In this way, Membrane
recalcitrant contaminants can first be transformed into
biocompatible intermediates during the electro- to sewer MBR
chemical phase, and then the treatment can be
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health
completed by well-established biological methods, with
lower operating costs [42,43]. Again, the nature and
One of the many possible schemes to implement decentralized industrial
eventual toxicity of the oxidation byproducts will have water reuse.
to be assessed in order to not affect the biological
treatment [44,45].

Finally, and though RO market is widely dominated by reuse in a decentralised manner [49]. Community
polymeric materials, industrial water reuse could pro- ownership in such projects should be encouraged in
vide a niche market for sturdier ceramic membranes order to further increase societal awareness and accep-
[46e48]. Indeed, their higher mechanical strength and tance of water reuse.
lower fouling propensity make ceramic membranes
particularly resistant to extreme pH, temperature and Water reuse as a component of circular economy
oxidation, making them ideal for combination with The concept of circular economy to increase reuse of
AOPs in an industrial water reuse scheme. materials, energy, resources, and nutrients [50] is still
nascent in Singapore but is expected to grow in the near
Decentralized water reuse future, with water reuse occupying a central position.
Because the treatment of industrial wastewater depends The symbol of this new paradigm is the planned co-
highly on the nature of the process, it should not be location for 2021/22 of the Integrated Waste Manage-
mixed with sewage and instead treatment should be ment Facility (IWMF) with the Tuas Water Reclamation
done in a decentralized manner at the level of the fac- Plant (TWRP) to increase plant performance and cost
tory (Fig. 2). efficiency for both installations (Fig. 3). The limitation
of this system is that most food waste and sludge will
The possibility to use small-scale treatment schemes for continue to end up at the waste-to-energy plants. More
reuse in an urbanized environment could be extended to sustainable alternatives are currently being investigated
greywater. Singapore boasts a very unique system of in the form of anaerobic co-digestion of sludge and food
vertical public housing managed by the Housing and waste to produce more biogas from these valuable ma-
Development Board (HDB) that are propitious for terials, a practice expected to display a lower environ-
innovative small-scale water treatment schemes for non- mental impact [51]. This project is currently being
potable reuse of greywater (e.g., for landscaping or for tested at the pilot stage. Decentralized options are also
flushing toilets). Even urine boasts potential for water being investigated in parallel by many companies using

www.sciencedirect.com Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health 2018, 2:26–31


30 Wastewater and reuse

Fig. 3

Solid Waste

Integrated Waste Management


Facility (IWMF)
Reclaimed Water Materials
Sludge Recovery
Tuas Water
Incinerator Facility
Reclamation
Plant (TWRP) Electricity
Waste Heat Alternative
Incinerator materials for civil
to landfill Bottom engineering
Ash (roads, buildings,
land reclamation)
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health

Simplified integrated waste management system in Singapore.

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