Thanks to a recent psychotic episode (no, really) of a relative, and by delightful coincidence watching Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ while this relative let rip on my Facebook feed, I have to process stuff again. It invariably comes back to the first traumatic experience I can remember, and it links to why I am a bit obsessed with horses.

I was six. I can’t remember if I was a little terrorist. Certainly, looking at my academic record and school attendance and reports from teachers I was well-adjusted, but maybe I turned into a little vampire or something at home. Either way, I was six years old. I don’t remember what happened to lead up to the next event, what I do remember is being pinned up against a concrete pre-fab wall on the furthest boundary wall of my grandmother’s property, where we were living in a caravan – or trailer home as the Americans call it (yup, I had a brush with being white trash and I loved it. This is part of the problem, that I like being cheap, dirty, lazy, etc and my family takes Severe Offense). Anyway, so I’m pinned against this concrete wall, and my grandmother and aunt, who to this day still lives with her, are both lashing into me. Hitting me and hitting me. I remember screaming that they are witches and I am adopted (cover my bases, these things tend to be hereditary). I don’t know when they stopped, but my nose was bleeding and I was feeling quite sore. My mom was working (her default state) and my dad was building a house about 2,6km away (according to google). We were living in a trailer to save money on rental so we can build a dream home with minimal debt. This is the 80’s. The home building was something that we, as an individual collective with an idea of what a home is, kept trying to do with building materials when we should have used softer things like talking. And we should have left the bloody dominee out of it.

So I went back to the trailer, cleaned up, put on my favourite dress – it had minnie mouse on the chest and the skirt was light yellow and white stripes. Then I ran away for the first time. I ran away many times in my life, but somehow I knew that coming home, staying fed and clothed and washed, was the best investment to finish my education, because that was the Ticket Out. I don’t know if it really is, and this compromise between maintaining troubled relationships to build my own destiny has remained a defining feature of my life. I think my family are now cottoning on and are Terribly Upset. I consider it economic restitution. So I don’t know if anyone ever knew I was running away. I was just not there for long amounts of time. (My family keeps saying that they miss spending time with me when I was younger, and I wonder what they mean. If they can recall a single conversation we had)

So I ran away to where my dad was building the dream home. On the way there I passed horses in a paddock on O’Reilly Merry street. They came over and nuzzled my hand, and that was the sum total of affection I received that day. That is why I am a little bit obsessed with horses.


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Reactor design for wastewater biorefineries

Presented at the 10th edition of the Renewable Resources and Biorefineries conference, hosted in Valladolid, Spain, from 4 – 6 June 2014. Website:

Today I want to tell you about bioreactor design for wastewater biorefineries. Immediately, two questions should pop up in your brain:

  1. Why on earth would we want to use wastewater, something that is typically very dilute, and highly variable, not to mention often dangerous to our health or just smelly, to produce commodity products, aka to make a profit? And;
  2. What makes reactors the critical point in this discussion?

First, let me tell you what we’re dealing with, to set things into context. We are considering wastewaters, ranging from complex municipal wastewaters, to a variety of industrial wastewater sources that may be more defined.

We can see from the data on this slide that wastewaters can be grouped according to three factors: volume, concentration, and complexity. For the most part these waters have huge flows, in the order of mega liters every day, and can be quite dilute, with the most common components in the order of milligrams per liter. What makes them hard to deal with is the level of complexity – these waters mostly tend to be highly variable, changing concentration and perhaps also composition the whole time, and they tend to be ‘receptacles’, meaning that the compounds that make their way into the water is not controlled, so you can get all sorts of heavy metals or toxic chemicals in these waters. Just as these are poisonous to us, they can possibly wreck havoc with microbial populations in your bioprocess as well. Wastewater biorefineries involve the recovery of valuable products, including water and nutrients, from wastewater as an integrated system rather than a unit process, and potentially provide a link between the users of water and those responsible for its management where resources are recovered in closed loop cycles.

So why bother?

Commodity bioproducts from renewable resources are often not economically competitive, and the challenge is threefold:

  1. The costs of the raw material, which could account for up to 80% of the total cost. A lot of research, as we can see at this conference, is about using wastes as ‘free’ raw material, but because of the suboptimal nature of the waste, often this method may make the total cost more expensive.
  2. Energy and sterilisation costs. Work by Harding (2009) and Richardson (2011) show that this contributes not only costs but also carry significant environmental impact, something that as biorefineries we try to avoid (even if only from a PR perspective sometimes!!)
  3. Downstream processing (DSP): “Product recovery is often difficult and expensive; for some recombinant-DNA-derived products, purification accounts for 80-90% of the total processing cost.” (Doran, 1995) Purifying bioproducts is really hard.

Reactor design is key to improving all three of these factors, generally, and with the dilute, complex nature of wastewater, even more so.

Conventionally, reactor optimisation aims to reduce the reactor volume to reduce the energy invested per unit product, and aims to achieve a higher biomass concentration, which results in less DSP cost per unit product. Using wastewater as raw material is exactly the opposite of this! Using wastewater gives a conveniently low cost and highly available raw material, but why could it make sense for an economically viable bioprocess?

The lower substrate concentrations in wastewater require lower oxygen supply than in conventional bioprocesses, which is associated with cost savings. With less oxygen supply required, the stirring can be more gentle, which may reduce shear stress in shear-sensitive organisms.

Wastewater may also potentially have a matching nutrient requirement, in terms of Carbon, Nitrogen and Phosphate – the reason we get algae blooms in rivers downstream from sewage works, for example.

Lastly, of course, beneficiating wastewater could contribute to increased resource efficiency, and reduced environmental burden, leading to greater sustainability, but this is not what I want to focus on today.

Before I continue I have to stress though, that wastewater biorefineries only make sense IF:

  • we consider the economic competitiveness of product against competing products, (and NOT (just) environmental or social gain)
  • we allow the separation of the steps required for the cleaning of the water (polishing) from the productivity, as this allows greater flexibility. This may be separate units on the same plant, operated by the same company, or moving the (now cleaner) water to a dedicated treatment plant.

So if wastewater is indeed a promising raw material, what is needed from the reactor design?

For bioproducts from wastewater to work, reactors need to produce product in the face of large volumes and a complex medium. The resultant broth should not affect the environment adversely, and it should make downstream processing (DSP) easier.

The interesting thing about DSP is that, even as this often contributes a lot to the total processing costs, the processing units are already very efficient and well developed. Reactor design in general needs to be better designed in order for DSP to be more effective.

We can’t sterilise the stream as the energy costs would just be too great, so we need a way to focus our efforts on the biomass rather than the bulk fluid. In order to achieve that, we need to decouple the hydraulic and solid residence times. In short, we need a biofilm.

Because of the typically large and continuous flows, we can’t store the liquid, so the process has to be continuous or semi-continuous.

The last factor is not directly related to the reactor but more to the market and management of these systems. We can’t use just a little bit of the stream. We have to use the whole stream to make it attractive for the people involved, be they industrial partners or the municipality tasked with treating the water, to consider this approach. Therefore wastewater biorefineries is best suited to commodity products like biofuels, biopolymers or biobased building blocks rather than niche products like pharmaceuticals or pigments, and this selection influences the reactor design.

Looking at this graph from Nicolella et al (2000), with the substrate concentration in kg per cubic meter (which is the same as grams per liter) on a log scale on the horizontal axis and the flow rate in cubic meters per day on a log scale on the vertical axis, we can see a few things.

Conventional bioprocessing most often occur at more than 10g/L of substrate, where the biomass is quite happy being single cells. This is fine, but not in my current interest.

We don’t want to operate in this area where it says ‘problematic separation’, because that means expensive DSP. This area where flocs are likely to occur are also difficult to process and require huge settling ponds.

Two areas on this graph look promising though; the static biofilms operating at slightly higher flows, indicated by this blue circle, and the particle biofilms at slightly higher substrate concentration, indicated by the orange circle.

From here we can consider the complexity of the stream. Remember that we can’t add anything to the stream that would affect the environment once we discharge the effluent. No nasty chemicals, and I would also say no genetically modified organisms. So we don’t have a lot of scope to modify the microbial community by force. The most robust and resilient biocatalysts would occur in a mixed community, able to withstand shock loads and hostile environments. They need to survive, but remember also, they need to produce products for us. This brings me to an important point: Wastewater biorefineries is not suited to all sorts of products. The product needs to meet commodity market needs, but ALSO need to serve an ecological function to the bioorganisms – it needs to give them a competitive advantage.

In terms of reactor design, the reactor needs to help provide this friendly environment, and to an extent that will depend on individual design requirements.

Next we need to enable effective downstream processing. We need to be able to get the product out easily. This means we don’t want to sieve through all the millions of litres, but we also don’t want to dissemble the reactor every time we need to get the product out – remember, we are working with continuous flows! Now, most DSP works with phase separation, gases from liquids like biogas, solids from liquids through precipitation, etc. Thus, we need this product produced in a different phase for easy DSP, and we need a general reactor design that makes it possible to get to the product.

I considered well-established, proven reactors generally used in wastewater treatment in this work, and this product recovery was the criteria that excluded most of these general reactor designs available. Only three designs remained potentially feasible. Of course, new research designs may eventually add to these.

The first is the rotating biological contactor, or RBC, and the second is the trickling filter, both very old and traditional reactor designs used in wastewater treatment. They both operate best at higher flows and slightly lower substrate concentrations.

The third one is a much newer technology called aerobic granular sludge, or AGS, which prefers slightly higher substrate concentrations, and is of a modular design to accommodate the slightly lower flow requirement.

I will now briefly consider each of these in turn to illustrate the basic idea, but bear in mind that the final reactor designs rely on accurate sizing, the eventual stream and product selected, and so on.

The trickle tower consists of media that allows biofilm growth on or through them, and the water flowing down across this biofilm. Trickle towers used to be constructed with stone, which limited their height and thus residence time, and the sheer weight of the stones crushed the lower materials leading to eventual failure and clogging. These days plastic and other light-weight media resolved this problem, as seen in the image top right, but one has to be careful about which media is selected to effectively enable product recovery.

Verdict: We included trickle towers in my work as neither of the other two reactors I talk about here could quite cope with my microbe’s requirement for oxygen. Trickle towers allow growth at the air-liquid interface, but it remains to be seen if product recovery will be adequate.

The rotating biological contactor, or RBC, is a partially-submerged attached growth bioreactor, with flat, circular disks turning slowly on a horizontal shaft. It is mechanically simple, has a low energy requirement, a modular character and is easy to operate. Currently, however, this limits the process flexibility and range of wastewaters, but I believe that targeted research can improve this greatly.

Traditionally the corrugated disks that we saw in the trickle tower have been used, but this may cause problems of unbalanced growth which results in mechanical wear. Disk innovation is improving this aspect: this image in the bottom left shows an alternative, hybrid model that I think gives a more sophisticated biofilm growing area.

Product recovery can occur via removal of individual disks, or of a shear force, either by a physical spatula sort of thing or through strong periodic air sparging.

Verdict: I think the RBC is very well suited to the biorefinery concept with a lot of flexibility. It is my ‘old faithful’.

The last reactor design discussed here is the aerobic granular sludge reactor developed at TU Delft and which, if the hype is to be believed, ushers in a revolution in wastewater treatment, and I think may do the same for the wastewater biorefinery concept.

The AGS consists of granules, defined as “aggregates of microbial origin, which do not coagulate under reduced hydrodynamic shear (also known as ‘sludge bulking’) and which settle significantly faster than activated sludge flocs: 15 seconds vs 20 minutes (de Kreuk et al 2007), as seen in the image at bottom right. This allows efficient biomass retention making compact reactors with integrated sludge separation feasible. It is a sequentially operated batch reactor (SBR), so fed discontinuously, and so requires modular construction.

Verdict: I am very excited about the AGS technology, but it seems to require specific skills in operation and is very new. I do think it comes closest at bringing bioprocess engineering into the realm of wastewater treatment. It is not well suited to very dilute waters, and requires low amounts of settling inerts, which tend to accumulate in the system. It is the ‘supermodel’ of my reactors, temperamental but sophisticated and sexy.

Two examples where TU Delft have used this reactor in a biorefinery type context are a partnership with Pacques, and a partnership with the chocolate maker Mars to produce biopolymers from wastewater.

In conclusion, I discussed some aspects that need to be considered for bioreactor design if one wants to use wastewater as raw material. I think these considerations may be useful for general reactor design as well. For bioproducts from wastewater to work, reactors need to produce product in the face of large volumes and a complex medium. The resultant broth should not affect the environment adversely, and it should make downstream processing easier.

More generally, reactor design needs to appreciate the wider system. As a unit process, they need to be optimised for overall system performance, and not designed for maximised productivity in isolation of other units downstream. It is also critical to remember that for this to work in the long term we need to consider the ECONOMICAL viability of the product against competing products, rather than the environmental or social gain, right from the start, right from the design stages.

We have just starting a project exploring the global state of wastewater biorefineries, what wastewaters are suitable, what products could be produced using this concept, what is currently being done. Any comments, input or suggestions would be very much appreciated.

In closing, I wish to acknowledge the South African National Research Foundation and the Water Research Commission for their generous funding, and multiple mentors, only some of whom are listed here.

and, Thank you very much for your kind attention.


  • Harrison S & Verster B, 2014. Reactor Design For Wastewater Biorefineries: Recovering Value While Producing Cleaner Water , article in draft.
  • WRC report due to be published soon
  • Nicolella C, van Loosdrecht MCM, Heijnen SJ, 2000. Particle-based biofilm reactor technology. TibTech, 18, 312-320.
  • Kleerebezem R & van Loosdrecht MCM, 2007. Mixed culture biotechnology for bioenergy production. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 18(3), 207-212.
  • Harding, K.G., 2009. A generic approach to environmental assessment of microbial bioprocesses through Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), PhD dissertation, University of Cape Town.
  • Richardson, C., 2011. Investigating the role of reactor design for maximum environmental benefit of algal oil for biodiesel. M.Sc dissertation, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town.


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This is a jotting down of interesting things from the RRB 2014 conference. Mainly for personal use, but also to spread the knowledge love.

10th edition of the Renewable Resources and Biorefineries conference :

Valladolid, Spain.

  • EU biorefinery definition, presented by Timoteo de la Fuente:

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses bio mass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and bioenergy/fuels) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components.

Co-products can also be food or feed. These objectives necessitate the integration of a range of different methods and technologies.

The biorefinery process chain consists essentially of the pre-treatment and preparation of biomass, as well as the separation of biomass components (primary refining) and subsequent conversion and processing steps (secondary conversion).

Reference: (Germany)

  • A very good conclusion from poster 38, on Seaweed Biorefineries, by Paulien Harmsen et al, from Wageningen, that can be applied to biorefineries in general:

Many initiatives of seaweed valorisation focus on fermentation of the whole seaweed to low-value energy carriers such as biogas or ethanol. It will be more sustainable to produce high value-added products from seaweeds and use residual fractions for conversion to biogas or other energy-carriers.

Interesting people:

Christian Stevens – RRB organiser, academic

Richard Wool, U of Delaware engineer, biomaterials entrepreneur

Stefaan de Wildeman – biobased building blocks

Eric Beckman – engineer, medical biotech entrepreneur

Christian Kabbe – phosphate recycling

Angela Manas – Veolia, wastewater treatment innovation

Nicolas Béfort – PhD student, Economics of doubly green chemistry

More info on the interesting people:

Stefaan presentation (from another conference)

Stefaan de Wildeman

Richard Wool

Crey Bioresins, Dixon Chemicals, Texas

Crey Bioresins, Inc. develops and manufactures bio-based polymers from renewable raw materials. The company utilizes soy oil and other natural feedstocks to develop thermosetting resins that can be processed using conventional methods. Crey Bioresins is pursuing this technology with commercial partners and will be expanding its efforts into various markets.

Christian Kabbe

For the implementation to market, new technologies need to be proven capable and feasible. Within P-REX, novel and available technical solutions for phosphorus recovery and recycling will be demonstrated in full-scale.

Angela Manas

Veolia env VERI. – broken link? creativ’ERU project (2011-2014) – confidential reports that are interesting

Nicolas Béfort – PhD student, Economics of doubly green chemistry

Presentation title:

Biorefineries and the Bioeconomy in search of business models

Interesting points (which I am still chewing through)

There is a lasting variety of productive heritages : Two philosophies of chemistry and four productive heritages:

  • “Intensive deconstruction“ pathways (typical of oil industry, although conceptually well-mastered by petrochemists), consisting of:
    • PH1–Extensive thermal deconstruction to C1–C6 syngas FDC,HMF, Thermo chemical transformation of biomass into syngas and reforming.
    • PH2 – Biotechnological Extensive deconstruction to C2 – C10 EtOH, PLA, PHA Enzymatic transformation of biomass into small molecules, synthons, building blocks (for chemiosynthetic polymers e.g. PLA PHA)
  • Moderate “destructuring” pathways (i.e. : which preserve the functional properties contained in complexity of living organisms).
    • PH3 – Limited chemical modification of extracted C5 – C30. Use of naturally occurring synthons (e.g. modified fatty acids for polymers)
    • PH4 – Limited deconstruction and transformations Cx – Cn Use of plant components complexity using innovative technologies (e.g. reactive extrusion, modif. Starch, whole plant process)

These are important in how they interact. Each productive heritage claims its own use of some of the 12 Green Chemistry principles. Each PH seeks to enforce its own green identity, and the economic dimension contributes to enforce this lasting variety: Scientific competition, but satisfaction of specific needs, and complementarities of market niches

Béfort is gracious to say there are no miraculous solutions, but two systemic learning pathways, but I see a lot of tension, what he calls ‘Exploratory dynamics’ between the historical actors (or macro actors: Agro-industry, paper, petrochem, chem industries) and new actors (knowledge-based firms: start-ups).

His conclusions, in the four dimensions for a systemic analysis:

  1. Economic dimension:
    Green economy needs new green products and not only a greening of the existing products
  2. Technological dimension:
    Portfolio of solutions and pertinent recombination are more important than one leading technology
  3. Social dimension:
    Biofuel-based biorefineries with unsustainable scale-up ? Are non—biofuels-biorefineries possible ? adaptation to specificities of local resources and small scale production?
  4. Scientific Dimension:
    Transformation into small molecules to obtain versatile building-block or Using the complexity of renewable material?

Websites and groups doing interesting work (plus a short description) – confidential reports that are interesting (DSM? Biobased building block) stefaan de wildeman. Also publication coming end of the year.

Veolia env VERI. – broken link? creativ’ERU project (2011-2014) – confidential reports that are interesting


Corbion ( old: DSM) – confidiential reports that are interesting

BioVale (York)

Insert your text here.

The existing 2ndgeneration biorefineries utilize less than 20% of the biomass feedstock for ethanol production, and major side-streams are produced such as pentose and lignin waste streams, that are respectively used for biogas and energy production.

Converting the carbon from these waste streams into added-value products would increase the otherwise low profitability and improve the environmental benefits of the biorefineries. The suggested project BioREFINE-2G aims at developing commercially attractive processes for efficient conversion of pentose-rich side-streams from biorefineries into dicarboxylic acids, which can be used as precursors for bio-based polymers including biodegradable polymers.

European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform (ESPP)

Sustainable management of Phosphorus is crucial for agriculture, food, industry, water and the environment. ESPP brings together companies and stakeholders to address the Phosphorus Challenge and its opportunities…

On Twitter: Phosphorus platform: @phosphorusfacts

The Biorefine project aims to provide innovative strategies for the recycling of inorganic chemicals from agro- and bio-industry waste streams. It wants to maximally close nutrient cycles by minimizing residue flows and economically valorizing the minerals that can be recovered from these residue flows.

Biotrend carries out research and develops in-house projects aiming at the production of bio-based chemicals, materials and fuels from renewable raw materials. We cover process development aspects from strain screening to fermentation optimization, process integration, intensification, de-risking and scale-up.

The future of the biobased economy begins in Central Germany: Partners from industry and research are working on the foundations of the material and energetic use of non-food biomass.


Copied this over from the old blog. Images may have broken.

still a little bit in draft.

I recently attended the International Water Association (IWA) first conference on Resource Recovery (IWARR2015), from 30 August to 2 September 2015 in Ghent, Belgium.

I think the research we’re doing at CeBER is on par with, and may in cases surpass what was presented at the conference. Below are some take home messages, and some highlights.

During the panel discussion on Sunday evening, Patricia Ossewijer (I first saw her on a MOOC on bioprocessing and it was a pleasure to meet her in person) held the view that water faces complex challenges. She cautioned that technology may not be enough. To quote her “Technologies are useful. Technologies on their own are inadequate”. She further cautioned that it will not be a sustainable world if we don’t address social development. She noted that poor people can own and operate complex technologies (like the cellphone), and so pointed out that we need to link technologies with what people understand in order to change behaviour. A discussion involving the audience was concerned that “we are scientists and technologists and we shouldn’t be doing social stuff”, which I believe misses the nuance; as technologists, we should do science and technology. The challenge is to do it in a better way.

More notes from the panel discussion:

  • Common hurdles for resource recovery (RR) is integration into the market, and that industries are specialised, they will not re-specialise to utilise a RR feed stream. For this reason it is a common view as well that the industry producing a certain waste should not be the one recovering it.
  • Legislation, and economies of scale were also listed as hurdles, but there was a significant portion of the audience with the opinion, which I share, that this is a challenge but not insurmountable.
  • The importance of marketing was highlighted. Economics was also stressed a great deal, and the current economic advantage is in reducing cost (of e.g. disposal), rather than producing a product from the recovered resource.
  • The presence of salts that poison a resource was noted. On the other hand, salt recovery seems to be a surprising route – see the Cluster award below.
  • High cost of resource recovery: cost is not the benchmark for the way forward. It is merely a challenge to overcome while we move to a better way.
  • Vitalphos is an example of a resource recovery product that found a very niche market application. (twitter image: We don’t need to conquer the market. We need only to find applications where our products are better, and that that is very achievable)
  • Recovery needs to be directly coupled to transformation. Nitrogen and Phosphate recovery is not enough, we need marketable products.

IWA Resource Recovery Cluster Award

There was a IWA Resource Recovery Cluster Award that went to Desso Netherlands (they make carpets), The ArdaghGroup (glass manufacturers) and Reststoffenunie (a Dutch thinktank about resource recovery). It was a supremely elegant solution involving the gypsum (CaCO3) from drinking water treatment:

  1. Waternet: Calcite pellets are recovered from Waternet’s water treatment process and recycled as seed material in the softening of drinking water. Changing from a traditional sand core to a calcite core in their softening pellets delivered cost savings, an improved environmental footprint and higher revenues;
  2. Desso: Calcite is used for the backing in carpet tiles. Desso worked with Restoffenunie and water companies to sole the biggest challenge of producing a suitable material at a competitive price. The cost of the dried and ground calcite is higher than what Desso previously paid but with this new product they save on bitumen costs due to better packing.
  3. Ardagh Glass: Calcite recovered from wastewater is used to produce glass. To be effective, calcite must have very low moisture content and low iron content. Ardagh Glass worked with Restoffenunie and Waternet to change to sand-free, lower iron content calcite seeding material, and to develop an environmentally friendly process for drying the pellets using a specially designed truck to lower moisture content using only the engine heat while in transit;

Links relating to the solution:

  • Academic reference: Circular economy in drinking water treatment: reuse of ground pellets as seeding material in the pellet softening process
  • IWA network newsflash:’Flash of genius’ recycles water waste into at-scale industrial applications
  • Cluster article: The IWA Resource Recovery Cluster aims to bring together R&D, water industry and materials users, and to promote economically and environmentally attractive approaches to resource recovery. (the below image is from here)

Kees Biesheuvel – “Industrial Symbiosis: A human challenge”

Kees Biesheuvel was probably my favourite presenter. He presented on “Industrial Symbiosis: A human challenge”. He is currently involved with the SmartDeltaCluster in the Netherlands, and the case study involved Dow Chemicals.

My two favourite observations of his was:

  1. The importance of iterative planning, of communicating with stakeholders before you have a fully hatched plan so you can develop together and resolve issues before you’re committed to any route.
  2. The realisation that logistics of resource recovery is not the core business of the companies involved in the resource recovery. I would like to think about this more, because I think this is a real opportunity for SME’s to add value.

He noted that in industrial partnerships, partners don’t need to know EVERYTHING about each other. Getting agreement on order of magnitude numbers may well be good enough, and trust is more important. He admitted that you need top management buy-in. Mere employers with good ideas may not get enough momentum to let it fly.

He stressed the importance of an independent, knowledgeable partner acting as a broker in between the companies in a fledging industrial ecosystem. In our discussion afterward he made mention of MUPs – multi-utility providing projects.

A reference was mentioned somewhere, in context to recovery of valuable metals from wastewater:

Westerhoff P, et al. (2015)Characterization, recovery opportunities, and valuation of metals in municipal sludges from U.S. wastewater treatment plants nationwide. Environ Sci Technol

A counter-argument to this, and many of the presentations at the conference was the impact of entropy: the fact that things are so dilute and distributed means that it may just be too difficult to get out. When I discussed this with Mark van Loosdrecht he said you have to sacrifice some of the advertised profit (the worth of the resources in the water) to get it out – not all of the worth is available to you. I countered that you need to sacrifice *something*, but it doesn’t have to be money, it can also be time, if you’re willing to wait, you can use a slower, more cost-efficient method of recovery. He said yes, we can wait 50 years for the gold to settle and then mine it out, which wasn’t really my preferred answer. But it may well come down to that.

Mark van Loosdrecht – “Wastewater: What are the potential for resource recovery?”

Mark van Loosdrecht gave a predictably brilliant presentation.

A good point that he made, using Phosphorous as example, was that often the recovered product is not the market need, but the avoided costs. It’s a sobering thought when you can get so attached to your recovered miracle product.

He also catchily said “We need to create self-organising systems due to economic drivers, that fit modern society”. (twitter image?)

He showed the potential of using alginate in cement, which is likely my favourite anecdote of the whole conference. (image and link)

Two data-driven presentations

Matteo Papa was the one region-wide data driven presentation, looking at how Italian wastewater treatment works were scoring on resource recovery (not too well). It seemed only the big plants are recovering. The argument that it is because of economy of scale does not convince me, as I don’t think they are doing anything directly related to the market, and smaller plants are often more flexible and can handle more risk, so can play more. I think it’s more that the bigger plants are managed more like businesses, while the small plants are all but abandoned at the best of times.

It was soothing, yet depressing, to see that insight and overviews of the flows of urban resources are lacking, everywhere. The other data driven presentation I enjoyed was by JP van der Hoek (based at Waternet), where he looked at the strategies to recover resources from Amsterdam’s wastewater. In his presentation, he mentioned 5 products that people are considering from resource recovery:

  • alginic acid
  • phosphorous
  • biogas
  • cellulose
  • polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)

From these, he considered cellulose recovery as a ‘no-regret measure’.


Veolia had a very large presence at this conference, and two presentations related to their investigations on PHA production, one by Alan Werker and the other by M Hjort.

I enjoyed Alan Werker’s presentation. His article on PHA production from papermill wastewater was one of the first articles I read when I got onto the ‘wastewater biorefinery’ concept. He spoke about Cella, CellaPol and the PHARIO project. One awesome thing was the ‘mobile PHA recovery unit’ which I think is an approach that holds a lot of promise for SMEs.


Arc biocomposites case study:

PHARIO project:

BIOPOL (Denmark)

Robert Kleerebezem – “Polyhydroxyalkanoate production from papermill wastewater”

Robert Kleerebezem, a colleague of Mark at TU Delft spoke about polyhydroxy alkanoate (PHA) production from papermill wastewater, contrasting their approach to that of Alan Werker’s work at Veolia Water Technologies AB (AnoxKaldnes). One of his conclusions is that sewage is too complex to get the volatile fatty acids (VFAs) out, especially as you need the COD to remove the nutrients. They are currently busy with a waste to resource initiative involving Paques. He noted that we need to develop the whole value chain and make sure the big picture makes sense.

Techno-economics of PHA

E. Bleumink explored the technical and economical feasibility of PHA production from sewage sludge. The STOWA report is called ‘Bioplastic uit slib’ (pdf: report in Dutch, above image from the report)

There was a LOT of talk that the first priority of resource recovery is still producing cleaner water. While I agree with this in principle, it is an approach that I feel hamstrings any real progress. I’ll concede with Angela Manas-llamas’s quote: “Solutions need to be coherent with treating wastewater”. Like we said in our research, don’t put stuff in the water that will make treating it harder. Implied is, don’t limit yourself only to water treatment processes. The audience was also divided by where the focus for resource recovery should be, with excessive focus still going to nutrients for land application, even if this is logistically very difficult and not very valuable. And if it’s not nutrients, then it’s PHA. Neither are my favourite approaches, by a long way.

On the last evening, there was beer brewed from wastewater as an publicity exercise for water reuse.

Some websites and reports that may be useful

Busy moving blogs, copied this over. The images may have broken.

Singularity University, a benefit corporation whose mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s greatest challenges, has announced a new partnership with Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) in South Africa, a division of FirstRand Bank Limited, to launch the first SingularityU South Africa Global Impact Competition (GIC). One of the Merah Mas projects  – Smart Wetlands, placed in the top 5.

Good evening everyone, tonight I want to talk to you about smart wetlands, or, smart swamps for our American friends.

My name is Bernelle, and my avatar is indiebio.

I didn’t put a slide up about the water problem, because I think we all know our water situation is dire.

We don’t have enough water, and what we have is of poor quality.

I’m a bioprocess engineer, and I have been working in the water industry for the past 6 years. But my passion is biotech, and the bioeconomy. Biotech is fundamentally water based, so the real clinch point in these industries is water.

Our solution:

treats dirty water,

using waste plastic and fishing nets,

to produce clean water

and sellable products,

while tracking the data in real time.

This is what these wetlands look like – all images courtesy of Lynda Muller.

And this is how they work.

The plants grow on top of this matrix, and the bacteria grow inside this matrix. Together, they clean the water.

But the plants that grow on the matrix can also be used to produce products, like fibre – for example flax for linen, cut flowers, or even food.

The matrix is made from repurposed plastic, in this case recycled plastic, and then there is the multiprobe, that can record data about the quality of the water in real time.

This idea started when Lynda was struggling to fill demand for the matrix. These are all imported, and the current exchange rate made the import option unfeasible, and we could not find a local manufacturer. I brought a sample, so if anyone knows anything, please, we’re still looking.

So we decided we need to innovate. We are looking at recycled plastic extrusion like the original matrix, but this involves grading the plastic, melting it and re-extruding it, which is energy and effort intensive. Our early attempt is shown in the middle of this slide.

We are now looking at shredding waste colddrink bottles, with a little tool – have a look at plastic bottle string, it’s all the rage on the internet at the moment.

(e.g. this kickstarter project)

(I think we’d have to upscale a little bit, make it a tad more industrial, multiple bottles at a time, but it should still work without power, off-grid, and be very repairable.)

We’re also looking at using abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) (See this UNEP report ), and you can see an early prototype which Lynda calls a ‘kraai nes’ (crow’s nest) in the image on the right. This would be great for targeting the East African market, where these nets are a problem, and we’d like to start by using the created wetlands on Lake Malawi. We have a potential base in Mzuzu, and potential partners working along the East African coast already.

Then, the multiprobe. This is developed by a colleague at the University of Cape Town. It is not part of Kevin Winter’s research, but he was getting so frustrated with what was available to monitor river water, that he hacked his own probes. He’s already managed to get the probes ten times cheaper than what off the shelf components would cost, but I think we can get it even cheaper and more robust with more development.

The probes measure six parameters:

1. pH

2. Dissolved Oxygen, a measure of the health of the water

3. Electrical Conductivity, a measure of the dissolved contaminants in the water – the things we can’t see

4. Total Disssolved Solids, a measure of the turbidity of the water, the contaminants that we can see, that makes the water murky

5. Salinity

and 6. Voltage, to check the state of the battery, which is powered by solar power.

The multiprobes sends data through in real time, so you can check it from your office. These probes need to be used everywhere, because we really don’t know what is in our water bodies, so they have to be cheap, robust, and open to allow people to use these for their own data-gathering purposes.

What is the impact of this solution?

Yes, we are cleaning water, and that is important, but what is more exciting is that it can serve as a three-fold catalyst for micro-industries.

The floating wetland matrix is a tailored solution for hydro-agricultural production – this includes anything from fibre production, herbs and vegetables, to serving as a habitat/protection for fish. The ‘scrubbing pad material’ is very useful, and the main limit to finding many applications to it is the cost and availability.

Then, the process monitoring approach is critical to the emerging bioecomony, especially in an African environment where more decentralised solutions may be more appropriate.

On a wider scale, better environmental monitoring and greater engagement better informs policy, which better informs appropriate treatment, which leads to better citizen engagement based on actual data.

In short, a more science literate society.

The underlying technology is one of integration. This work is based on more than ten years of integrated research on wastewater biorefineries, including aspects of for example, bacterial attachment, biological wastewater treatment, treatment wetlands, and ecological engineering. We draw from global research in these areas and more over many decades.

The short version is, we integrate knowledge of water, biotech and IT, specifically embedded systems.

We have published one report already which is publically available from the Water Research Commission (link), and our second project concludes in May, so the report should be available to the public later this year.



Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.

A talk I gave at Green Drinks: Bernelle Verster, 18 September 2011. It’s still a favourite.


Creating Community  -what a bioprocess engineer is learning about life, tameness and our attempts at ‘sustainability’.


Bernelle believes an integrated approach to education, waste management (a subsection of ‘sustainability’) and economic viability is achievable. As curator of TEDxCapeTown, she enjoys creating cooperative relationships between entrepreneurs, philosophers, creatives, academics and other beautiful people and exposing them to Ideas Worth Spreading. Together with public participation events like TEDx, she believes social entrepreneurship can be used to create positive change in the paradigms prevalent in society today.

Bernelle is for love of water. She is particularly interested in the resources-in-transition (otherwise known as waste) in ‘dirty’ water and is working hard to create ‘wastewater biorefineries’. She is currently doing her PhD at the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER) at the University of Cape Town, rethinking the engineering industry with the help of Biomimicry. She is known as the Water Maverick. : approx 16 min (150words/min)


Firstly, thanks to Helene Smit, Candice Pelser and Justin Beswick for the discussions that are contained in this presentation. Specifically, Helene for the concept of ‘Beneath, Between and Beyond’ and Candice for the closing phrase. I also draw from practically all the presentations at TEDxCapeTown held in April this year. Opinions, misunderstandings and errors expressed are my own.

(numbers refers to clicks on prezi that can be accessed here: (16MB)



“To understand wildness is to discover the thread that binds us to all living things.” – Ian McCallum

My story doesn’t start here, but it has a special relevance to the path that I am on at the moment, and I would like to share it with you for a while.

2.start: big word TAME

prelude: sustainable – if a relationship is ‘sustainable’ I’d rather get out, thanks. A better term for me is dynamic non-equilibrium, but for the purposes of familiarity, I’ll stick with sustainable, in the fuzzy ‚’everything will be OK’ definition.

3.tame – definition


easier to control



opposite of neo-anarchy?


4.Ian MacCullum poem

Anthony Turton: ‘we have to uncivilize known civilization by accepting the fact that we are part of Nature, and not the masters and owners of Nature that Rene Descartes described in his famous Discourse on Methods, published in 1637.’

I like the word, fierce

– the way it aligns itself with

nakedness and solitude:

a fierce nakedness…

a fierce solitude…

And I like the way it holds the word – fire.

I like the word,fire

the way it ignites

the cutting edge of poetry

refusing to be nothing less than

a fiery edge…

a fiery tongue…

And I like the way it is linked

to the word, wildness.

I like the word,wild

how it weaves its way

between yes and no,

how it announces itself as

a wild anger…

a wild joy…

And I like the way it nurtures

the word, fierce.

I like the word, fierce –

~ Ian McCallum

5. nakedness and solitude: a fierce nakedness…

I chose to work in water because I was getting a bit paranoid that we’re heading into some rough times (I still am), and I thought, if it all goes bottoms up, where are we most naked? It didn’t take long to figure out that we need clean water, and my skill set complemented this nicely. I also love what I do. Once I was in the field, I also realized that the water industry at large is incredibly vulnerable. We have more water to clean and more contaminants to take out of it, but less space, less time and less money to do it in. It is also not a well-supported industry, and is fraught with politics. Add to that, it is an incredibly conservative industry with very little in the way of sustainable business models. I don’t want to talk about this today, but this places what I try to do into context.

“The relationship is built over time with small interactions that gather weight within us.”

6.the way it ignites: PGA

My research is focused on producing a biopolymer – polyglutamic acid, PGA, (the polymer form of the flavourant MSG, or mono-sodium glutamate, or, mono-glutamic acid) from very dilute, dirty water. This polymer is the same gloopy stuff found in the Japanese foodnatto. PGA can be used for high volume applications such as hydrogels, which could be used in biodegradable, disposable baby nappies; flocculants, a replacement for the alum chemicals currently used in cleaning water, as well as low volume, very high value food and medical applications – like the natto foodstuff, food flavourant, the stuff that makes cosmetics feel so silky and gelly-like, and medical sutures.

The big problem with the biological version of these products is that it is too expensive to produce at scale. So while it may be environmentally sustainable, economic sustainability is still poor. So my research is focused on producing it cheaply. The main costs in bioprocesses are the raw material, as well as the energy involved. This energy mainly goes in preparing the process: most of these processes occur in a sterile environment, and cleaning up afterwards. Other costs are purification and product formulation. Many engineering processes choose off-the-shelf ways of producing something, and only think about dealing with how to clean it up afterwards. Developing the process as a whole, with the units taking care of each other is still quite novel, but it’s happening.

I’m the type of person who wants it all, wants it all to be perfect, and want to invest the minimum amount of blood, sweat and tears to get it there. So I went looking for an abundant raw material that no one wants, and would preferably pay me to get rid of it. I found two things – glycerol waste from biodiesel production, and sewage.

7. granule

Sewage, or wastewater, is generally very dilute. It’s flows and concentrations changes the whole time and there are invariably things in that are toxic to my bacteria. I have to develop a process that doesn’t need controlled, predictable conditions, but still produces the product you want. This is like saying you want the same productivity a monoculture cropland full of wheat can give, from an untended field of weeds next door. Likely? Not always, but you might be surprised to find, that it can be. What we need to learn to do, however, is to give up control, quiet our cleverness and work with Nature – the principles behind Biomimicry.


Two examples:

  1. The Land Institute – Wes Jackson and Jon Piper has shown that they can get similar yields from ‘prairie crops’ – herbaceous, perennial seed bearing plants – than monocrops, (Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus, p 11- 25, roughly).
  2. Relevant to my research, the concept of Microbial Community Engineering, work done by Mark van Loosdrecht and Robbert Kleerebezem at TU Delft, the Netherlands. I first started thinking about going wild when I read about Biomimicry, and when I visited Mark’s group in June this year, I was sold. I’m going wild.

This granule you see here, measuring a bit less than 1 mm across, is the basis of Mark’s technology, called aerobic granular sludge, which I abbreviate into AGS, and if you see my facebook going on about Agnes, this is she. Sortof. I can carry on forever about this technology, and if you’re keen I’ll go on a bit after the talk.


I want to read you something from an academic article, written by Zdena Palkova in 2004:

“Microorganisms naturally grow in conditions that are far from optimal, which causes them to become organized into multicellular communities that are better protected against the harmful environment. Moreover, this multicellular existence allows individual cells to differentiate and acquire specific properties, such as forming resistant spores, which benefit the whole population. The relocation of natural microorganisms to the laboratory can result in their adaptation to these favourable conditions, which is accompanied by complex changes that include the repression of some protective mechanisms that are essential in nature. Laboratory microorganisms that have been cultured for long periods under optimized conditions might therefore differ markedly from those that exist in natural ecosystems.”

I take two things from this:

  1. Much of what we know, scientifically, are based on conditions that are entirely irrelevant to nature. For environmental biotechnology, like bioremediation and wastewater treatment, this is important. Question everything.
  2. These bugs sound like humans. We don’t do so well on our own. It’s not natural. It’s fine when we’re handed everything on a plate. But those times are over, (and thank goodness, it was dull.)

I’ve cheated a little with the wild vs lab picture here, I couldn’t find a good picture of tame vs wild Bacillus. These are Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast used in brewing beer, so here’s to you, SAB! [they sponsored the evening]

Apart from being tougher and more able to survive, the reason why I want wild Bacillus is that the PGA is found in these strands that bind the bacteria together, and they are less prevalent in the tame strains.

Not all wild Bacillus strains produce PGA, and the ones who do have noticeable presence, or even dominance in a stressed environment, like oil fields, very salty places like the salt lakes in Kenya and heavy metal contaminated rivers. This suggests that PGA fulfills an ecological function that gives these bacteria selective advantage. It is likely also to be a carbon and nitrogen storage compound too. This is important in the dynamic environment of wastewater biorefineries. back to granule

At the moment I am developing a reactor system that favours my organism, a bacterium called Bacillus, to produce this product PGA, in a non-sterile environment. I am basing it on what we know already from wastewater treatment, using Mark’s concept of designing processes based on enrichment cultures, where the desired product must also have a role in microbial ecology.

To this selective reactor system I am adding the concept of product recovery -designing the system to take the purification of the product into account from the beginning. We call this ‘wastewater biorefineries’. This bacterium already occurs in wastewater, and I will not modify it any way. In fact, I don’t even care if my bacterium survives. I want a bug in my reactor system that is happy producing PGA as dirty water flows by. I am engineering its environment so that it is happier than the other bugs, but not excluding their presence, because they have value too – specifically with regards to complete nutrient removal (to give a stable and robust reactor system).

10. click back to WWTW

My process is a small cog in this bigger system. However well it works, it will still need significant investment, and operator training, and it won’t work so well if we dump chemicals in the water the way we currently do. The bigger system needs work, and the number one tool to achieve this is public awareness, and working together. Technology is awesome, and fun, but it is a small part of the bigger picture. No one person, but each one of us TOGETHER can save us. Enter TEDx.

11.TEDxCapeTown: Be Water My Friend

I decided to do a TEDx event because I was faced with a very specific challenge: How to get people outside of the water industry interested in the water industry – how to make innovation happen outside of the boundaries of any specific (e.g. the water) industry. I needed the public to be aware of the crisis without being paralysed by it.

The theme ‘Be Water My Friend’ – a quote from Bruce Lee – pulled water slightly out of context and drew in the qualities of water, especially with regards to entrepreneurship. A little bit of give and take. Never giving up, but going with the flow; being adaptable. In celebration of Water, TEDxCapeTown took its inspiration of technology, entertainment and design from water. Water is life. Life adapts and evolves, and Life creates conditions conducive to life. To have a successful business, lifestyle or philosophy, we need to create conditions conducive to our own efforts, without compromising those around us.

The event was a phenomenal success. This quote from Lise Pretorius, one of our speakers, sums it up for me: “New, fresh ideas from grassroots of society, tackling the biggest problems in society – technological or social. Everyone comes here to think about innovation – be it ideas, ways of thinking or physical things. It shows there a shift in the way people are thinking, [because] the traditional economic model no longer really applies anymore.”


12. giraffes

Water is not enough. Having successfully run TEDxCapeTown in April earlier this year, we were frustrated by the lack of diversity in the crowd, and the limited reach the event had. To maximise the potential that TEDx events can have on a broader community, we have decided to introduce the concept of TEDx to one of our communities that has less access to such opportunities. TEDxMfuleni happened last Thursday, themed ‘Creative Community’. Ultimately, the goal is to spark off a number of these events in all sorts of communities across the Cape Town metropolis.


13. a wild joy… play.

Eventually, we want to develop a value system – a self-organising principle – to allow people from all backgrounds to take collective action to achieve a deep connection with themselves, each other and Nature. This must happen in business, in our private lives, in governance, in every aspect of our lives.

This wish influenced our decision on the theme for 2012. It had to be really broad, wide and as encompassing as life itself. And yet, it still has to be FUN.

14. definition of play.

The theme for TEDxCapeTown 2012 is ‘What we Play is life’.

There are many many connotations to the word play – both positive and negative. Abraham Maslow mentions that ‘Almost all creativity involves purposeful play’. I put the play bit here because this looks like a music note to me. And seeing that we’re busy with the Rugby World Cup: Life is a team sport, let’s play it.


I want to end with another poem, or a part of it. It’s an excerpt from MILKWEED by James Wright. I printed it on my first set of business cards, many years ago. And, while this is not the end of my journey, I feel that, while I did not know then what attracted me to this poem, now I have come full circle. We are part of nature, it loves us. The time is ready to love ourselves and acknowledge that nature loves us too, if we’ll let it. We need to let go a little, go with the flow, embrace non-equilibrium, become a bit more wild, to become ‘sustainable’.

I look down now. It is all changed.

Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for

Was awild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes

Loving me in secret.

16.end: big words TAME IS NOT SUSTAINABLE


thank you


From the book ” The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard G. Wilkinson, Kate E. Pickett

“The key is to map out ways in which the new society can begin to grow within and alongside the institutions it may gradually marginalize and replace. That is what making change is really about. Rather than simply waiting for government to do it for us, we have to start making it in our own lives and in the institutions of our society right away. What we need is not one big revolution but a continuous stream of small changes in a consistent direction. And to give ourselves the best chance of making the necessary transformation of society we need to remember that the aim is to make a more sociable society, which means avoiding the disruption and dislocation which increase insecurity and fear and so often ends in disastrous backlash. The aim is to increase people’s sense of security and to reduce fear; to make everyone feel that a more equal society not only has room for them but also that it offers a more fulfilling life than is possible in a society dominated by hierarchy and inequality.” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010, p236)

Another equality quote via Kyle Mason-Jones:

“equality should not be confused with uniformity; in fact, uniformity can be the enemy of equality. Equality means equal concern and respect across difference. It does not pre-suppose the elimination or suppression of difference. Respect for human rights requires the affirmation of self, not the denial of self. Equality therefore does not imply a levelling or homogenisation of behaviour but an acknowledgment and acceptance of difference. At the very least, it affirms that difference should not be the basis for exclusion, marginalisation, stigma and punishment. At best, it celebrates the vitality that difference brings to any society.” – Albie Sachs

Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.

I gave this talk to a fabulous bunch of CPUT’s first year eventing students. I had so much fun writing it, and even more fun attending the day. There was such a vibe, and the students were so clued up. We were expecting a shy absence of questions, but instead I was pinned down with thoughtful questions right through tea break – Massive ego boost! I feel so grateful and thankful to Craig Kinsley (@being_ck) of Pragmatics (@Pragmatweets), and his colleagues, who organised the day. (In case you want to check it out, the hashtag was #eventingDNA). Here’s what I planned to say, and roughly stuck to (I think), and the prezi is available here:

Post-talk, I realised I may have made it sound like all indie events are done by volunteers, which is not true, just all TEDx events… and even that is not completely true.

I also am still not good with explaining what TEDx is and what TEDxCapeTown actually does, which I guess says a lot, and after being so excited while writing this talk and remembering the good things about TEDx, I’m completely over it again. Time to move on. But this time, the moving on sentiment is with a warm fuzzy feeling, and that is fantastic!

Indie Eventing

Slide 1. Main slide:

I was asked to speak to you today about independent eventing, but I didn’t really know what it was. Seeing that this is the second time someone asked me to speak about it I clearly was doing something along those lines, but whatever.

So I went to do a web search.

Slide 2:

“Independent eventing” brought up a cloned horse named after a tomato…

Slide 3:

and “independent event” brought up … maths and statistics.

Slide 4:

So that didn’t help. and I guess that’s the first lesson. There’s no hard rule, or category for what ‘independent’ means. That’s the point.

Slide 5:

I finally found something helpful, a book by Anneloes van Gaalen called “Indie Brands” and the phrase that stood out for me was

“But as true indie brands they share three important characteristics:

  • they’re independent,
  • they have a story worth sharing
  • and they all understand the magic of marketing.”

Slide 6:

And I think that’s an awesome place to start. But awesome is a terribly overused word. And when I went looking for an alternative (, terrifying is the first word that popped up.

Which it sortof is, right. Because when you can do exactly what you want to, you never know if it’s right or wrong, approved of, if it will work or not… But in a world of uncertainty, best thing to do is to be comfortable with flying blind. And comfort comes with experience.

Slide 7:

So, now that we have some sort of idea what indie events are… The indie event that I was part of is called TEDxCapeTown. Instead of trying to explain what it is, I’ll show a short animation done by a local company: Slide 8 (movie):

TEDxCapeTown is an independently organised event, operated under license of TED. is the global website of ideas worth spreading in under 18 minutes, TEDx is the independently organised crowd explosion, and we’re one of many in Cape Town. It’s free to get a license and anyone can do it.

TEDx events are volunteer driven and have to be multi-disciplinary, free from political, corporate or religious agendas.

Slide 9:

Most people I know in this area have come to events from elsewhere, or started in events and then moved on, so I consider eventing as complimentary to your wider career. Especially as volunteers, there is something bigger than being part of a great thing, they all have their own ‘agenda’ that they’re trying to achieve, which influences why they’re in this.

So when you plan your event, or career, think about how they fit together. What is the market need, what do the audiences want, but also, where do YOU want to go?

Slide 10:

A lot of the people we’ve met and done events with on the way are now doing their own indie events, either under the TEDx banner or on their own. Examples on this slide include TEDxTableMountain, happening in November, and a group that worked with TEDxCapeTownED, who brought the magic, and wonder and marketing and combined that with Education (which is all you really need, right?!) and created a new event – ethicsxchange, also happening in November.

In doing eventing, you gain a lot of things.

The reputation from doing events successfully,

the skills you learn,

the network you build,

the friends you make,

becomes a currency, that you can use and harvest for the rest of your career, wherever you go.

Slide 11:

As an example, why am I in this? My twitter handle gives you an idea: @indiebio

indie: Independent…

bio: Biology, science. I’m a geek!

Secondly, the water.

I am passionate about water and frustrated that scientists and the public seem to not be able to communicate, and this has horrible, far-reaching consequences. So we did the first TEDxCapeTown, themed around the Bruce Lee quote “Be Water My Friend” to draw awareness to water, in multiple, fun ways.

It was very successful, so we kept going.

OK, so that’s a few reasons why one would want to organise independent eventing, but what’s in it for your target audience? Remember the Indie Brands – telling a story and the magic of marketing? Stated in a different way, it’s purpose, and getting people to do stuff.

Slide 12:


I think we’ve moved beyond brainless interaction, and I’ll get back to the brain-part in a moment.

The social cause thing is a hot topic at the moment. People want to feel good having fun.

People want to be part of something bigger. This something bigger is a sense of community, but it is also being the good guy, being part of the answer, and not the problem. Making the world a better place and all that.

I do think it seems to be rather shallow, so whether it’s greenwash, or pinkwash or real, doesn’t really seem to matter, which annoys me, but I guess it comes down to your integrity as an organiser, and good marketing. Yah, I guess this is a debate one could have.

Slide: 13


Part of being part of something bigger is about being involved, and it really comes down to physically feeling like you’re contributing. Get your audience, or customers, or users, whatever you call them, to do something, in real life, interacting with other people. It’s a have to have.

Getting people to do stuff is also a brilliant marketing tool. People like telling other people what they’ve done. The crazier and more unconventional, the better.

Personally, we’re still pretty amateur at this, but as an example, for our last event we crowd-sourced typographical art pieces, which we called “Alphabet soup”. It was a massive hit.

Slide 14:

Two other events that do this brilliantly is Greenpop and AfrikaBurn, and they’ve got the purpose thing waxed too. (The overly environmental focus is my own bias…) To quote Monique Schiess, founder of AfrikaBurn: “The best eventing advice I can give: don’t try and make an event. Just do nice shit and gather people”.

Slide 15:


I would also add, but maybe this is just my personal angle, I think people are bored, and want intellectual stimulation. So they want to have fun, it should be easy to get involved, it needs to have integrity and have purpose, they want to do stuff, and feel important and part of something bigger, and they also want to learn something. And more importantly, while learning something, they should never, ever, be made to feel stupid, or intimidated. Getting this right is hard, but I think, this is the next goldmine.

Slide 16:

I want to end of with another stakeholder – your funders, or financial supporters, your sponsors.

Being an independent event, means you probably really really don’t want to be a sell-out. But you need stuff to get stuff done. It’s not always money, and in kind partnerships are quite easy to achieve, as you can align with your partners’ values. They get direct value when people interact with their offerings, for example getting your venue sponsored is easy, as it markets the venue, getting tech partners is easy-ish too – and here your reputation (as a currency) is critical.

But how do you convince cash sponsors? It’s not as easy as just promising to slap their logo on your website and programme or tickets or whatever.

You really need to spend a lot of thinking on how to align with what they want to achieve, and if you can align with integrity at all. Some are fine with a bit of social media engagement (Waaaayyyy harder than it sounds), others want press releases, others want tech interactivity…

You can go solo and ‘hard-core’ independent, but this adds a lot of stress, takes longer, and ironically damages your reputation. To others, you don’t look like you can do it alone and you’re so bad-ass indie, you look like you don’t play well with others.

What you do have in your favour is a different way of looking at the world, a creative edge, if you like. You can pitch this in a successful way. And with the world in the tumble it is at the moment, that’s quite an edge!

My favourite quote around this comes from the misfiteconomy: “What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. “

With the pirate vibes, I want to end with our little pirate indie intro clip for our TEDx videos. (For this blog, just check out one of the 2013 talks. Here’s Ivo Vegter:

Slide 18:

Thank you.


The water droplet and bewatermyfriend design was done by Amy-Jean Prentice (

Most of the designs and animations used in this talk was originally developed by Blinktower (

More info on TEDx:

For more TEDxCapeTown talks: An (incomplete) playlist here:

I did not get to say this (I started writing with this idea, but then felt it inappropriate for the intended message. Also a tad depressing, somehow).

I want to focus on the volunteering aspect of it, as I think this can teach the wider world a lot about how organisations and businesses can function, and I see eventing as having a lot of value to add in changing how we interact with users, or customers, and have impact much wider than the events we do.

Team dynamics become very important.

Relationships with everyone – team, service providers, funders, or potential funders, creatives, become more important than the budget. You’ll probably read this statement in every management book, but being an indie event really makes you live it because you just don’t have the money to be callous.


Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.

Found this interview with Jason Stewart. The version that went live can be found at the Legacy Project– an initiative that hopes to inspire you through providing you with unlimited access to extraordinary individuals, each of whom have achieved Greatness in their own, unique and varying form.


1. What does success mean to you? Has your definition of it changed over the years and if so, why?

Right now I’m looking for balance, so I guess success for me would be to achieve that. My work involves interfaces, moving between worlds and trying to find overlap, so success is definitely not an all out excess thing for me. I’m happiest when I’ve managed to combine and create something new out of things that look completely mutually exclusive. That’s success to me.

2. What drives you?

To be honest, I’m mostly driven by frustration. Something would irritate me and I would work until I’ve figured it out or changed it. The concept of jouissance – Jouissance is translated as “bliss”, but the French word also carries the meaning of “orgasm” really appeals to me (not only because I have a vulgar sense of humour). Working hard and long for something to have an intense sense of achievement appeals to me. Having a purpose is important, but the real driving force lies in the experience of the journey.

3. What are the highlights of both your life and your career that make you most proud?

I don’t think I’ve achieved those yet! So far, I like to think I’ve had a small part to play in the very many people I’ve seen go from having an idea to following that idea through to something that consumes them, makes them happy and achieving their goals, and that makes me proud. I am proud that I am changing the way the world thinks about waste, that we can start having conversations in person or on the radio or in the media about taboo subjects like shit in a open, fascinated, realistic way. I like that I can completely embrace being quirky and different, and being supported for that. One day, I would like to completely transform sewage into being the core of a community. Watch this space!

4. What do you think is often the difference between people who are good at what they do and people who are great at what they do?

I think we all have things we’re good at, things that need to get done and serve a purpose, but they contribute to something greater, on their own they’re just following orders. I think the difference to being great lies in having an all-consuming passion for what’s being done, but there’s also a hard-core realism at play, being tenacious and tackling challenges. Passion and dreams are not enough.

5. What is one talent or strength of yours, which has been critical to your success? Can you please offer advice to our readers on how they can replicate how you have used and refined this talent/ strength to be more effective and powerful over the years? This is as much of a step-by-step piece of DIY advice as you can manage.

I’m stubborn. I have a dream that I think is important and for most of my past people thought I’m being silly and should use my talents elsewhere. But I’m too stubborn to listen. I am also insatiably curious, and critical. While I wouldn’t describe myself as realistic – my dreams are pretty outrageous – I look at the real issues out there and keep on refining my dreams to take account of that. But I don’t give up on them. I think to be successful, you need to understand how what you want to achieve gives benefit to OTHER people – so that they can help you achieve it. You need to be able to communicate your dream in terms that OTHER people understand. Very few things can be achieved solo, you need to get other people to help you. So in short, you need to look outwards, and sometimes that is really frustrating, you feel like shouting, can someone just look at ME once, at MY needs? But this whole thing is about you, and your dream, and it is important, never forget that. It’s just that you need to package it to take cognizance of what other people need and what the reality is. I’ve learnt this the hard way. I think my talent is to take a wide variety of disparate trends and facts and stories and try to fit them together, to read and ask more and more to create a full picture – being stubborn, and being tenacious goes a long way to achieve that.

6. What do you believe are the characteristics, actions, habits and behaviours that you both have and use, that have helped you achieve what you have been able to achieve?

On the one hand, stubbornness and tenacity, on the other hand, distance. It’s a dance, you need to be able to let go and look at the situation from a distance sometimes, take time out, take the day off, and when you are convinced about what you need to do, you need to knuckle down and act without listening, lose the sleep, put in the hours. I think the trick to figure out when to do what comes with experience, and having a few mentors and friends whose opinion you trust, and who you can critically engage with. I have a few close friends, some disagree (loudly) on most of what I do, but they can argue in an informed way, and I will keep going until I’ve convinced them. Others are informed and agree with what I do, they’re good for when I just need to do things and need support. I almost want to say you should be argumentative and question everything, but at the same time you need to be able to let go of your treasured opinions and ‘facts’ because sometimes they’re just wrong. The only thing you shouldn’t have is too much pride and ego.

7. What are the principles and values that you believe are important to live by?

Community. I think this being the best and the only one on top is rubbish. One cliché I live by is ‘building ecosystems not empires’, and I really believe that. To get what you want, you need to help the whole ecosystem grow. In turn, it will support you. I believe in what I call ‘conversational leadership’ – the whole organization or initiative working together to achieve something, and all views adding value. It’s chaos, but I think it works. Also, integrity. You don’t have to exaggerate to sell something. I’m pretty disillusioned with the whole tech scene and how we do things at the moment, actually.

8. What are the critical skills that you have used and worked on improving, in attaining your success?

Having debates without it getting heated or personal in order to learn rapidly. Facilitating group processes to hear the silent voices too (not just the loud guys). Using conventional wisdom to develop really unconventional solutions (especially in engineering). One skill that needs improvement is patience. While I can keep pushing to get things done a little faster, sometimes I push too hard.

9. On a psychological or mindset level, how do you use your mind and how do you think in a specific way to help you achieve your goals and realize your ambitions?

Well, I had a full-blown breakdown, burnout in August 2013. So I wasn’t using my mind all that well, I think. I do seem to be able to hold a helluva lot of ideas in my head at the same time until they can fit into a coherent whole, but I also identify very strongly with my projects – I take it too personal. On the other hand, I think this is just the price you pay for passion. I take a lot of opinions and facts and situations into account, and this helps with the sense of community that works together to achieve something.

10. What are the most important lessons you have learnt so far, in your career or life journey? This could be anything from very simple small lessons, too much larger bigger lessons.

Not everybody plays nice, even if you allow the space for them to express themselves. Your integrity does not safeguard you. Yeah, I’m naïve. But, on the other hand, being gruffly honest means people who are dodge usually avoid me because they know I will rock the boat, I will call them out, mainly because I just don’t have diplomacy. For a long time I thought I should be more professional and tactful and diplomatic, but actually, no.

I’ve also learnt that people are really bored and being downright eccentric is fine and acceptable as long as you’re not obnoxious. Respect people and be kind, but by all means, be hugely unconventional, entertain them!

Don’t be afraid to love too much – ideas, your project, other people, whatever. It hurts like hell, but the investment is worth it.

11. How do you deal with self-doubt, fear or negativity? Can you share a time in which you either doubted yourself the most or had great fear, yet faced up to them and conquered them?

Well, I recently spiralled down into a vicious, vicious cycle of self-doubt and it completely destroyed my confidence. I am currently getting out of it. What I did once it bottomed out was to take a month off – off-line, off-work, the whole hog (and I know I am incredibly privileged to be able to do this, but definitely, leave what’s been killing you. Just do it). Then I started from scratch: I did a few courses that I need in my career, that I’ve done before, as a refresher and to boost my confidence. 80% of what I do at the moment is exclusively intended to boost my confidence. It also helped me evaluate what I really like and what I don’t, which helps me plan going forward. I am seeing a psychologist (highly recommended), once I bottomed out and it got quite scary I started seeing a psychiatrist – important to note this has to happen in conjunction with making changes in your life – don’t just use psychiatric help to ‘take the pill to make you forget’, you have to take charge of what hurt you in the first place. I am planning to see a career coach to make significant changes in my career to help avoid what made me doubt myself in the first place. Most importantly, while you do need people to debate and argue with to ensure your idea and projects have vigour and can succeed, you do NOT need people who break you down. Some of your best friends change when you get successful. YOU change as your success grows. Take care that these friendships don’t become toxic. Have a few friends to talk to, who you can have no-holds barred conversations. I got a dog. I bought my first self-help book. Yup. Sometimes all those clichés… crawl into bed and read them for a while. Just to reflect. Apparently meditation is the bomb. I just haven’t manage to do it yet.

12. How do you ensure you are always performing at your peak?

I don’t. You don’t need to. Take time out. I do think either perform at your peak or get out, don’t fluff around in the middle. If you’re not feeling it, take an hour, a day, a week, a month. And when you feel it, get stuck in. It’s that simple. I’ve decided office hours are for losers. Work on deadlines, they’re motivating, but don’t stare into the screen because that’s what you do at work. Outcomes based performance works best for me. Also, do things entirely unrelated to what you’re supposed to be doing when you’re stuck. I completely believe in creative inspiration. There’s a lot of, sometimes corny, tools to help you brainstorm to get to the point where you can just perform. It goes without saying that you have to want to be doing what you’re doing, or have a clear understanding how what you are doing, even if you don’t like it right now, fits with what you are passionate about – I believe you can’t fake motivation.

13. What resources (people, books, environments, movies, music etc) do you use to keep yourself inspired, informed and growing?

I love libraries. I love reading. I have a few friends who are also complete geeks and very well informed, and I drink a LOT of beer with them. Twitter is fabulous for getting all sorts of disparate views on topics, it is important to get a range of views on things you care about – even the weird insane ones. Definitely throw out your TV. I do believe that pottering around with a hands-on hobby, or gardening, pets… something basic that involves doing things with your hands are important to keep you grounded, but I realize that’s not for everyone. Really, throw out the TV though. Go completely off-line once in a while, for at least a week.

14. What are your dreams, ambitions, plans or goals that you would still like to achieve?

I want a franchise of sewage plants. I want to build incredibly beautiful buildings that involve manufacturing beautiful, basic necessities, and happens to treat our shit as well. I want people to consider these to be central to their community, to be the meeting places where people let their hair down, where they come to learn, to play. I want ecosystems of all sorts – plants, people, ideas. I want a community of citizen scientists, who can have informed conversations about all sorts of whacky things.

15. What do you believe is the meaning of life?

I don’t think there is one. It’ll just be a bit dull if we all sat around not doing anything, so now we do stuff to keep ourselves entertained. Ask me again when I’m in love.

16. What is the best advice you have ever received?

Trust other people to look after themselves, that’s not your job. Trust them to be adults. (It frees up more time for you to spend on yourself)

17. What would your practical advice be to someone who wanted to grow rich and build wealth?

Don’t. Why on earth would you want to? Plant a forest, when you’re old you can sell the timber.

In seriousness, I think money and what we understand as financial systems will always have some sort of relevance, so I’m not saying to disregard it entirely, but I think richness and wealth is desirable because it promises security and power, and I don’t think that it delivers that any more. I would say support independent food initiatives, and then create a community or a network of whatever skills you would pay money for – so you can get them for free when you need to. Build currencies of skills, trust, influence, networks, friends – then money is only needed for a few other things. Seriously, I think we’re in for a rough ride in the coming years, and money’s not going to save your ass.

18. How do you find, motivate and keep great people working with you to reach your goals?

Find out what they really love, and see if there is a match with what you want. Kyra Maya Phillips from the Misfiteconomy put it well: “let me get to know the guy or girl who has half an idea that I can combine with my own”. Understand that they have their own passions, and let them get on with that. Be clear what you need to make your dream happen, and why it’s such a big thing – articulate that clearly. Keep talking, continuously adapt and respond to what’s happening to them, and you. Ideally I like working with people who have their own thing going, I don’t like employing people.

19. What is the answer to a question, which I should have asked you, but didn’t?

20. What Legacy would you like to leave?

I would like to be part of the group of people who change the world’s thinking from lines to circles.


Please note: I’m busy moving blogs, and copied this content over. The image links are going to break, if they haven’t already. It is what it is.


The transcript of the talk I gave at the SA Geography teachers conference, on 24 September 2014.

The title, roughly, is Permaculture, water and the landscape: the connectedness of things

The attendees made for a lovely audience, so much laughing in all the right places that I got totally overexcited. 🙂 I’m not quite happy with the structure and content of this talk yet, but I think it’s starting to get there. (As a point aside, I think I should make a talk that gets into the nitty gritty of Permaculture, water and the landscape, but first, I need to write 3x 4000-6000 word essays on the PhD… sigh) Also, this was the first talk where my special person was in the audience. That was … different.

When I was building this talk, I thought, I work in sewage, and this is a dinner time talk, so…that’s not going to work. I also thought you, as geographers, probably know more about water and the landscape than I do. You probably also had a long day, and I don’t want to exhaust you further with more technical stuff.

To be honest I just put this slide in everywhere because I love it so much, but to give it some place here, this is a rather random talk, some things may be too technical for you, some things may be too general, some too soft and mushy, some too hard… Take what you like from it, and just sit back for the rest. The talk will be online, so you can dip into it whenever you want to again. I learnt about constructivist learning approaches this week, that really appeals to me, so I would like you to build this learning with me.

To read the quote, it’s a Bruce Lee quote, but I can’t do the voice, so bear with me:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.

It’s a bit weird for me to be here, I’m not a geographer, I don’t even really know what it is, I’m not a teacher, even though I’m learning to be one, I’m on a course! So the web says you all learn about everything on the earth (laughter). I can relate to that, that’s cool.

So I didn’t want to talk about sewage, and then I thought, what is the big thing that I want to talk about? I can tell you about that we have too much dirty water, that our stormwater causes too much flooding because our cities are paved over. That we have a flush and forget, out of sight out of mind mentality where it comes to wastes. That we struggle to manage manure at feedlots at the same time as we struggle to fertilise and nourish our fields. We all know these things, I don’t want to bore you with it.

Now, as engineers and scientists, we like to identify the issue and then address it. I think it’s important to communicate it too. So I’ll follow this approach tonight, but as useful as this is, it causes a lot of specialisation, and creates these silo’s of knowledge, so I want to give one other approach before I dive in.

This quote is by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and I go through these phases where my thinking pulls a lot from the Little Prince, so I apologise, I got a bit carried away with all the pictures… anyways, this quote sums it up.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work (of course, this is important, to organise teams and so on, but it’s not the only thing), but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

So, what’s my big issue? Well, here’s another quote from the little prince. The fox says, you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. And we have tamed our environment. But this is not the whole issue. Here’s another quote, from Bruno Latour, and I learnt a new word – post-environmentalism! I’m a post-environmentalist. Actually, my engineering friends think I’m a hippie and my hippie friends think I’m a capitalist, but hey. Here’s the quote:

Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather than he abandoned the creature to itself.

We create monsters. It happens. But we need to take responsibility for them. And I think a lot of the environmental and other challenges we have now is not that much because we created the circumstances for them, but that we then abandoned them.

For me, the big issue is this: Tame is not sustainable.

When I finished this talk and sent it off to Bridget, and went home, I suddenly thought, oh my God, they’re going to think I’m talking about anarchy. I’m not. Tame and wild is not like order and chaos. To me, tame is disconnected, subdued. Wild is connected, an ecosystem. Community. We do not know ourselves and our interactions with the wider world anymore. This quote by Ian McCallum sums it up – to understand wildness is to discover the thread that binds us to all living things.

I guess it’s a different way of identifying the issue, and now that we have, the really tricky thing is to communicate it. We are trying to bring many very different minds together to talk to each other, and that’s really hard. I want to share with you two approaches that I think does very well at achieving bringing people together to learn in a fun way. The first is biomimicry. It is a design tool: I don’t think it does particularly well at actually addressing challenges, so I think that needs to be kept in mind, but as a design and educational tool, it’s fantastic. The website has excellent resources and a lot of them are free:

Biomimicry has six principles, and Permaculture has 12 principles, which I’ll get to in a moment. These principles help a lot to get your mind around things and iteratively develop solutions to them. They are also very helpful to get people out of their areas of technical jargon, they get to play together in a neutral space.

(I did not go into the principles during the talk as the audience was tired and I thought not really in the space to pay attention, they seemed to want a quick laugh, dessert and then a bed…)

Biomimicry’s six principles:

  • Adapt to changing conditions
  • Be locally attuned and responsive
  • Use life-friendly chemistry
  • Be resource efficient (materials and energy)
  • Integrate development with growth
  • Evolve to survive

Permaculture is the conscious design of human living environments that reflect the ecological principle that underlies nature.

I think Permaculture does a good job of communicating the issues, as well as addressing them. Perhaps more in the organic sphere, land restoration and food production, for example, but the principles can be used in any setting (some more metaphorically speaking than others).

Permaculture principles: (

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change.

I want to particularly highlight the eleventh principle – Use edges and value the marginal.

It’s the things on the edges that innovate because they have to, because if they don’t, they die. At the edges you also get to interact with other things, cross the boundaries, which allows you to make connections that may not have been possible before.

What we have move to the margins is our waste, so I want to take the last part of the talk and focus on how to address this big issue in terms of waste, and the work that we do.

Biomimicry considers that nature knows no waste. Permaculture says a waste is simply a resource that is out of place, that we can innovate and make valuable again. Even OMO gets in on the action, and says, waste is good (I’m paraphrasing).

At CeBER, the Centre for Bioprocessing Engineering Research, we look at how these things fit together, what we can make from wastes using biology, and also what that means in terms of economics, and if it fits well in the bigger picture, if it is really good for the environment and so on.

I didn’t know how much technical stuff you want so I just put in the introduction pictures, but please feel free to ask questions at any level of technicality.

The Biominerals group is our largest group and the best funded (and sometimes with the ego to match). They use bugs to treat mine wastewater, but also to mine low grade ores, mainly for copper, but also for zinc and gold. They do great work, they’re really brilliant.

One of the main research areas in CeBER is bioleaching, a process where microbes are used as biocatalysts to convert metal compounds into their soluble forms. This leaching process is an alternative economical method for the recovery of metals such as copper, zinc and gold from low-grade mineral ores, with low investment and operation costs.

The Algae group is the PR face of CeBER: all our press photos have algae group pictures in, and the most beautiful people work in this group. It’s true. This group looks at if algae is all it’s cracked up to be, it started with the hype around biomass to fuels, and looked at if it made economical sense – it can’t, and now we look at ways to supplement the economics with higher-value products like carotenoids and nutraceuticals. This group also looks at the whole ecosystem and if it makes environmental sense.

CeBER focuses on algal cultivation, harvesting and processing for the production of carotenoids, nutraceuticals, lipds and energy products. Maximising lipid productivity through optimising the uptake of light and CO2 is critical to systems scale-up. Through the biorefinery concept, inventory analysis and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). we identify key contributions required for feasible algal processes.

And then there’s me. I learn from the biominerals group who work with the very dilute mining waters, and the algae group who knows about biorefineries, and I try to bring them together, to create value from a range of wastewaters – my passion being municipal wastewater. I found this beautiful quote at the last conference in Spain this year, which was very exciting as more and more people are now getting the hang of this thing. That does make me feel a bit odd because now it feels that I’m moving away from the edge, so I have to do something to keep the edge!

A biorefinery is characterised as an explicitly integrative, multifunctional overall concept that uses biomass as a diverse source of raw materials for the sustainable generation of a spectrum of different intermediates and products (chemicals, materials and/or bioenergy/fuel) whilst including the fullest possible use of all raw material components – EU definition, presented at RRB2014 by Timoteo de la Fuente.

This is really important, as the first ‘biorefineries’ were all about taking one raw material, say the crops that were taking the space for our food, and turning it into fuel, and that was not working well at all. These biorefineries now start to approach much more of an ecosystem, and I think that is really moving in the right direction.

I want to end with coming back to that longing for the sea. I spent a lot of time fighting and trying to figure out how to make this world better. We are in a tough spot, a lot of things are not going well, and it is easy to get despondent.

Then I found this word, jouissance. It means physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy, and comes from the French word jouir, for “enjoy”.

I’m not sure if I should say this, but I’m going to anyway. This word also has links to orgasm (roars of laughter which made me feel quite goofy), … and I think that’s epic.

I first came across jouissance in a book written about capitalism (Capitalism’s New Clothes – Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis), of all things, in which Colin Cremin describes it as follows:

… a brief flash of enjoyment (more roars of laughter, making me very happy 🙂 ) achieved after excessive pursuit (a few giggles). The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfillment – but only if that fulfillment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.

In our search for tameness and control, we want everything to always flow smoothly, but that robs us of jouissance. On the other hand, the fact that so many things are changing so fast is not such a bad thing. So I want to implore you to embrace a bit of wildness, in these interesting times. We need to work hard to make things better, but celebrate those small wins, have some brief flashes of enjoyment. This way, we would get further, and have more fun.

And that’s it! Thank you for your kind attention.

*** The talk after mine was by Carin De Villiers on SA’s Alternatives to Coal, and can be found here (1.5MB).