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Research and Development

The Group's research activities in the first semester of 2013 chiefly consisted of the technological development of renewable sources, the development of environmental monitoring and control technologies, energy efficiency, and optimisation of network management and environmental services. Particular emphasis was given to applied research into systems for the production of energy from renewable sources through the construction of HEnergia, the Hera Group's centre for the development of renewable energy.
The main research projects in progress are:

  • HEnergia

    This is an experimental centre for applied research into technologies for the production and utilisation of energy from renewable and alternative sources, whose construction was begun in 2011 in Forlì. In this first semester, a work was completed which will be tested and become operative within the end of the year. HEnergia will make it possible to assess various technologies, from those already available on the market to those still in the prototype phase, thanks to an advanced network of data measurement and acquisition. The focus will be on the measurement of effective output and its development over time, so as to better evaluate and compare market solutions and state of the art solutions. The other significant aspect will involve the identification and prevention of operating problems and the assessment of actual running costs. Initially, the Laboratory will have a photovoltaic section and a unit devoted to the production, storage and use of hydrogen. Operations are scheduled to begin within autumn. Experimental activities will be carried out in collaboration with the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bologna.

  • Emerging Pollutants Project

    The term "Emerging Pollutants" refers to various biologically active substances of anthropic origin which are present in personal care products and in pharmaceuticals, psychoactive substances associated with drug addiction, and the relative metabolites. Endocrine interference agents represent a particular category, which overlaps with many of the preceding. The presence of these substances in water is considered to be one of the most significant environmental problems of the last decade. In 2007, Hera launched a research project aimed at identifying the principle emerging pollutants in water systems (with particular reference to natural water purification), fine tuning analytical methodologies for their quantitative identification, carrying out research on the presence of such substances in relevant water systems, and evaluating the efficacy of their removal in currently used treatment systems (purification and depuration). Collaborations have been set into place with the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the Istituto Mario Negri and the study group "Endocrine interference agents and water intended for human consumption" (EDinwater) promoted by the Fondazione Amga in Genoa. In 2010 the set of parameters to be monitored was defined and a control plan was put into operation. In 2011, a joint initiative with the Milan Politecnico was launched in order to identify the most suitable drinking water treatment technologies. The scope of this collaboration includes the analyses launched in 2012 concerning treatment technologies and drinking water supply chains currently in use, to assess their efficacy in removing certain micropollutants and the need for any future upgrades. The results of this study are expected for the end of 2013.

  • Automatic Leak Detection

    This project is dedicated to investigating innovative systems for automatic water leak detection, to be used in conjunction with a remote-metering system. A test site was set up in 2007, and tests in different environmental conditions were carried out. The initial test results were extremely promising. In 2008, the investigation techniques were refined with the creation of an automatic field acquisition system, the development of a statistical analysis tool and the creation of a project for a leak simulation tool. The tool was implemented in 2009, when it was offered to clients together with the acquisition tools completed the previous year. The considerable mass of data collected has enabled this physical phenomenon to be defined better than it previously had been. In 2010, a tool was designed and produced to facilitate data acquisition at different connection points and in various operating conditions. In 2011, acquisitions were made in various territories which allowed further refinement of the signal analysis algorithm.

    Experiments continued in the first months of 2012, with the creation of a device equipped with a hydrophone sensor whose performance will be compared with that of the (accelerometer) sensor that has already been tested during 2013, in a collaboration with the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bologna.

    Experimental activity was launched in parallel for the creation of a permanent infrastructure for leak detection in an urban network which is based on hydrophones fitted to hydrants. The pilot plant was created in Riolo Terme (RA) and began operating in December 2012. Monitoring began in 2013.

  • Bio-Hydro

    The project proposes to develop an organic agro-zootechnical waste disposal cycle consisting of hydrogen fermentation of at least one type of agro-zootechnical waste, and methane co-digestion of the residue from this process with other agro-zootechnical waste or with the organic portion of solid urban waste. The project is being conducted in an association between Herambiente and the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bologna, and is jointly funded by the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies. In 2010, work began on the characterisation of agro-zootechnical waste, and various waste matrices were acquired, suitable for the hydrogen bio-conversion process and anaerobic co-digestion of the effluent from the hydrogen fermentation. In 2011 work began on the production of hydrogen and methane with biological procedures.

    In 2012, evaluations were carried out as to the possibility of using 1) hydrogen produced in traditional PEM combustible cells and 2) solid residues of combined hydrogen and methane bio-production, such as compost/fertilizers for agriculture, and any necessary pre-treatments. The activities were concluded during the first semester of 2013. The results will be available within the end of the year.

  • Automatic Plant Management

    The project, developed in collaboration with the Models, Methods and Technologies for Environmental Evaluations Technical Unit - Protection and Management of Water Resources of ENEA, the Milan Politecnico and the University of Bologna, involves the development of a system for automatic management of the main operating parameters of water-treatment plants. The system's task is to maintain the process conditions of a given plant at maximum efficiency, depending on the composition of the incoming waste water (depuration plants) or untreated water (potability treatment plants). In 2008, work began at the Calderara di Reno - Bologna depuration plant, chosen as a test site. In 2009, analysis and control instruments were installed at the site and field-data acquisition began. The data acquired in 2010 confirms previous knowledge concerning continuous-flow sludge treatment, and reveals new characteristics in the signals relating to the quantities monitored, helping to differentiate between standard operation and malfunctions at the plant. In general, the applicability of automatic control to real-scale plants has been demonstrated. In 2011, the second phase of the project was begun, with the aim of developing a prototype system within three years. In 2012 a prototype plant to scale was installed at the Trebbo di Reno (BO) purifier, and the rationale and policies for controls to be implemented in the system were identified. In the first half of 2013 the probes and the remote data reading system began to be installed at the Calderara di Reno (BO) plant.

  • Modelling water cycle plants

    The purpose of this project is to develop mathematical models for the simulation of depuration plant hydraulics and processes. The objective is to acquire the instruments and know-how necessary to begin coordinating the mathematical modelling of water-treatment plants for the Group. In 2009, preliminary work was carried out to develop a model of the sample site and to select calculation software from those commercially available. During 2010, at the end of the evaluation phase, software licences were acquired. 2011 saw the start of modelling work within the Group, which is still in the pilot phase.

    Within the scope of this activity, in 2012 the Group equipped itself with sophisticated instruments capable of carrying out specific laboratory analyses for the calculation of magnitudes and parameters useful for modelling, which were used in the first semester of 2013 for the characterisation of waste waters and the calculation of a number of kinetic constants. Again in 2013, incoming and outgoing multi-parameter probes were installed in a sample plant, to obtain a sufficient quantity of data with which to calibrate and check the model.

  • Energy Recovery in Water Treatment Plants

    In 2010, the possibility of energy recovery from water treatment plants began to be investigated, with a study of the technologies involved. An initial feasibility study was developed to recover energy from the Bologna depuration plant using high-performance hydraulic screws. Two other studies were launched in 2011: the first concerns energy recovery from the mains water supply using In Pipe Turbine (IPT) or Pump As Turbine (PAT) systems; the second project involves thermal energy recovery from the mains water supply using low-enthalpy heat-pump systems. In the wake of these studies, and following additional data analysis and field verifications carried out in 2012, a decision was made to continue with pre-feasibility studies for an application at an aqueduct pressure reduction substation in the Municipality of Bologna, to optimise any possible energy recovery. This study is still in course at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bologna.

  • Characterisation and analysis of polyethylene pipes under normal operating conditions

    Polyethylene pipes used for the mains water supply have a higher rupture index than pipes made of other materials. In order to examine the causes of this situation in greater detail, a project is under way to carry out a critical analysis of burst pipes, with the aim of increasing know-how about PE pipes, providing simple criteria for classifying the various types of breaks, identifying the principal causes and designing improvement plans. The project is being conducted in collaboration with LyondellBasell, one of the world's leading manufacturers of polyolefins, and with the Plastics Testing Laboratory Foundation in the Department of Chemistry, Materials and Chemical Engineering at the Milan Politecnico. In 2010, samples were taken from pipelines where ruptures had occurred, and a visual analysis was made of these test pieces; statistical analysis of the ruptures and laboratory analyses began to be carried out. Laboratory tests were carried out in 2011 for the precise characterisation of the fractures, and the results of these tests will serve as the basis for defining action and improvement plans in 2012.

    The results of the research conducted have been presented at WaterLossEurope 2012, the largest international event organised by the IWA on issues related to water loss. In the first semester of 2013, samples were consigned to a spin-off of the University of Ferrara, Advanced Polymer Materials, for chemical-physical, rheological and thermomechanical analyses.

    Work will continue with the preparation and updating of specific technical documentation (such as application field, supply specifications, laboratory analysis, etc.).