From an environmental perspective, industrial plants have notorious reputations of contributing to pollution. The saline wastewater, or brine, produced by industrial zones, be they coal mines or textile factories, negatively impacts water resources and basins in particular. A "circular economy" approach, led by the Zero Brine project, however, aims to utilize technological innovation to extract minerals such as salt and magnesium from brine generated by process industries while also reusing the wastewater produced by industrial zones.
In Poland, for example, the nearly 4 million tons of brine dumped into regional waters from coal mines have had a significant impact on the country's freshwater resources while also accruing an economic cost in the agricultural sector estimated to total some $100 million-$250 million annually.
As one of the pilot projects of the Zero Brine circular economy project, the facility built in Bolesław Śmiały coal mine in Poland, operated by the Silesian University of Technology (SUT), has seen positive results, demonstrating that through innovation and technological engagement, the normally wasted saline can actually make a positive contribution not just to the environment but also to the economy through effective processing.
"Saline mine waters cause serious problems for the rivers in the Upper Silesian Coal Basin, Poland. Desalination of mine waters could be a solution," Grzegorz Gzyl, the project coordinator at Central Mining Institute in Poland said during a visit to the pilot project last month. So far, the pilot plant has the capacity to treat 400 liters of the mine's wastewater per hour. Considering the number of coal mines in the region, the project could be promising for the area.
"The potential for replication and uptake of environmental benefits and energy-cost savings is immense in a broad range of industries. Due to the similar composition of coal mine brine and seawater, the proposed technology can be applied for desalination – a sector which will become increasingly important due to increasing water stress," professor Marian Turek from Silesian University of Technology said during the visit.
How the circular economy model could be applied to other industries requires more research; however, innovation and technological engagement to save the environment can also create an economic opportunity for entrepreneurs seeking to turn a profit while also making a sustainable, positive impact on the environment. Funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, Zero Brine already has three other pilot projects, including a demineralization water plant in the Netherlands, a silica plant in Spain and a textile factory in Turkey.