On first glance, it would be easy to assume that the UK's railways and sewage system don't have much in common. But beyond both offering miles of essential infrastructure to millions of people, these impressive feats of engineering date back to the Victorian era in their earliest form. And, in today's world, both systems now face demands of increased use due to growing populations and extreme weather as a result of climate change.
These seemingly monumental challenges simply could not have been predicted by the engineers who designed them, and now, partway through the 21st century, leave much to be resolved. Water companies provide drinking water and sewage services to over 50 million households in England and Wales, with a sewage network that could wrap around the world 13 times. Similarly, some transport networks in the UK carry up to five million passengers a day. It is essential that both sectors consider what they need to do in order to prepare their infrastructure for the future, so that they can continue to provide essential and reliable services to customers.
There is immense potential for bold ideas from the transport sector to revolutionise current practice in the water sector. This could range from introducing new methods of transporting materials, to implementing structures that reduce surface runoff to prevent transport network delays. Equally, the development and adoption of new materials could improve sustainability across pipe networks and other infrastructure. Intelligent use of data across both systems could benefit customers and improve maintenance practices.
Last month, Ofwat – the water regulator in England and Wales - launched the Water Discovery Challenge. It is a new £4m competition calling on innovators outside of the water sector with bold ideas that can help solve some of its biggest challenges. In particular, Ofwat is inviting innovators working in transport and urban planning to apply their ingenuity and skills to deliver breakthrough solutions that can be used by the water sector. We need to respond and adapt to climate change, working towards clear common goals and ambitions.
Where the water sector is already benefitting from innovations linked to transport
Previous competitions from Ofwat's Innovation Fund have already rewarded innovations connected to the transport sector. One example is Welsh Water's Hyvalue project, which is aiming to generate hydrogen from gas produced as a bi-product of sewage treatment. It's hoped that the hydrogen created will be used to power Cardiff's fleet of 300 public buses, not only reducing the associated carbon emissions from diesel exhaust, but also reducing nitrous oxide emissions and particulate emissions.
Other examples include projects that could greatly reduce disruption to transport networks thanks to smarter ways of detecting and preventing leaks that reduce the need to dig up pipes.
Pipebots are tiny robots that can monitor and prevent leaks by "crawling" through pipes. These interventions could be scaled-up and paired with mapping crucial transport pinch-points, to predict and prevent flooding that may affect travel for consumers, and ensure that transport networks can run as efficiently as possible.
Meanwhile the Designer Liner project led by Yorkshire Water is developing a technique to line older pipes from the inside to increase their lifespan, reducing the need to dig them up and replace them through disruptive roadworks.
How to enter the Water Discovery Challenge
The Water Discovery Challenge is the latest from Ofwat's £200 million Innovation Fund, which seeks to generate new ideas to tackle issues including preventing pollution, improving water efficiency, boosting flood and drought resilience, prioritising sustainable practices, managing leaks and supporting vulnerable customers. The new competition does not require entrants to partner with a water company.
Up to 20 teams of the most promising innovators will be awarded up to £50,000 to develop their ideas, with expert support and mentoring from water companies. Up to 10 will go on to win up to £450,000 to turn ideas into pilots.
To deliver the competition, Ofwat is working with innovation prize experts Challenge Works, alongside global engineering, sustainability and water sector experts Arup, and Isle Utilities. In addition to financial incentives, successful teams will benefit from expert mentoring and capacity-building support, including access to insights and mentoring from water companies and support for scaling solutions for the extensive water network in England and Wales.
The Water Discovery Challenge closes on 5 April 2023. To find out more and enter, go to: waterinnovation.challenges.org