Arizona wastewater treatment plant reaches milestone

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Chandler, Ariz., has been hailed for attracting technology giants and startups alike, but one asset that keeps things running smoothly for manufacturers often flies under the radar.

The city’s reverse-osmosis facility, which treats industrial wastewater from Intel’s Fab facilities to drinking-quality standards, was the first of its kind when it began operations in 1996. This fall, the round-the-clock facility hit 5 billion gallons treated, enough to fill Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Ariz., six times, according to the city.

Chandler spokesman Jim Phipps says, “In an arid environment like here in the desert, water is like gold. The facility has allowed us the ability to have large manufacturing companies in town, because we’re able to reuse the water after they use it.”

Intel donated the land for the plant, which wasn’t needed until the company came to Chandler, and covers the $1.4 million needed to operate it each year. Intel’s semiconductor manufacturing plants in the southern part of the city use significant amounts of Chandler tap water in their manufacturing processes. Gravity propels streams of wastewater from Intel to the facility, which uses microfiltration, nanofiltration and reverse osmosis to treat the water that passes through.

Facility superintendent Ron Feathers says, “The whole facility is a membrane process, and there are different degrees of membranes. Microfiltration will filter everything down to one-tenth of one micron. For comparison, a bacterium is about 0.50 microns, so it’ll basically take down anything suspended in the water.

“Nanofiltration and reverse osmosis — both of those will take out dissolved solids, with reverse osmosis being the finest membrane,” he says.

Membranes have to be replaced about every seven years, which gets expensive, and cleaned monthly. Another reason Feathers believes reverse osmosis “hasn’t swept the nation” is that not everyone has the resources available to deal with the brine leftover once wastewater is treated.

Chandler funnels the brine from its facility about 6.5 miles to five evaporation ponds near Ocotillo and Gilbert roads, where evaporation rates vary depending on the weather and time of year.

The ponds together provide 32 acres of surface area for evaporation, which Feathers recognizes is “a lot of real estate just to put dirty water.”

The facility over the years has been honored with multiple innovation and design awards, including being named the industrial wastewater facility of the year by the Arizona Water and Pollution Control Association.

Phipps adds: “We were ‘green’ before green was cool.”

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