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Meet the Minds: Sebastien Tilmans Wants to Eliminate Wastewater

Sebastien Tilmans, director of operations of the Codiga Resource Recovery Center at Stanford University, talks about the amazing potential of water reuse in our “Meet the Minds” series, which taps California water experts about their ideas.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In May 2016, a sign urges water conservation in front of recycled wastewater in a holding pond used to recharge an underground aquifer at the Orange County Water District recharge facility in Anaheim, Calif. Recycled water is increasingly playing a bigger role in California’s water resources.Chris Carlson, AP

It’s easy to think of water as either “clean” or “dirty” depending on whether we use it for drinking or carrying away our waste. But Sebastien Tilmans sees the same potential in every molecule of water. And that kind of thinking could result in huge changes in the way we manage our water resources.

Tilmans is the director of operations at the William and Cloy Codiga Resource Recovery Center at Stanford University, an accelerator and test facility for water and energy resource recovery technologies. The center aims to accelerate the path to commercialization of wastewater technologies, and to go far beyond existing technologies to capture energy, nutrients and materials from water that most of us are happy to flush away.

“We should be thinking about what good we can do with our used water, rather than looking for a place to dump it and then scrounging further and deeper for new supplies,” Tilmans says.

Water Deeply recently spoke to Tilmans about why technology is not the biggest challenge when it comes to innovation in the water sector and what he’s most excited about.

Water Deeply: What are you working on that you want the world to know about?

Sebastien Tilmans: My colleagues and I are starting up the Codiga Resource Recovery Center, a facility at Stanford University to scale up, test and demonstrate the new technologies that will help tackle our water challenges. Water recycling holds a lot of promise to address our shortages, but right now it’s energy-intensive and costly. We’ve got a few technologies in the pipeline that could completely change that.

Water Deeply: What do you see as California’s biggest water challenge?

Tilmans: In some ways, technology is the easy part. The biggest challenges for California lie in finding the right financing, market, policy and legal frameworks to enable more flexibility in our system. That flexibility, in turn, will enable us to take advantage of a suite of new technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our water system. We think the Codiga Center can help articulate the benefits of overcoming those challenges, and make sure the technologies are ready and reliable.

Water Deeply: Who/what do you find most inspiring in your field?

Tilmans: There are a number of experts and visionaries in our field who have been quietly and patiently working for decades so we could have tools to resolve the challenges we face today. Their patience and perseverance inspires me. The technologies and systems that we hope to demonstrate at the Codiga Center are the result of that lifetime of dedication, and I’m thrilled that I get to push that legacy forward.

Water Deeply: What’s the most important thing California should be doing right now to create a sustainable water future?

Tilmans: We should be learning a lot more from our energy sector. Approaches like distributed generation, demand response and pricing incentives have helped transform the grid into a much more flexible and sustainable system. As we do that, though, we do need to be conscious of the many ways water and energy are different. Water is both an economic good and a human right. Meanwhile, we don’t just have to deliver water to homes, farms and businesses, but usually we also have to think about transporting it away after it’s been used.

Water Deeply: Looking out 10 years from now, what do you hope California will have accomplished on water issues?

Tilmans: I hope we’ll have eliminated the concept of wastewater. All water is recycled water, and all water can have a beneficial next use. We should be thinking about what good we can do with our used water, rather than looking for a place to dump it and then scrounging further and deeper for new supplies. Every molecule of water has the same potential.

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