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Research and development

The Group's research activities in the first half of 2012 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 waste management services. Particular emphasis was placed on applied research into systems for the production of energy from renewable sources through the construction of Hlab, the Hera Group's energy laboratory.

The main research projects in progress are:

  • Energy Laboratory

    This is an experimental centre for applied research into technologies for the production and utilisation of energy from renewable and alternative sources. Construction was begun in 2011 at Forlì. A large part of the main building works was completed in this half-year.
    The Energy Laboratory 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 data measurement and acquisition network. The focus will be the measurement of effective output and development over time, for a better evaluation and comparison of 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 real running costs. Initially, the Laboratory will have a photovoltaic section and a unit devoted to the production, storage and use of hydrogen. The construction works are scheduled for completion in the spring of 2013, and experimental activities will be managed in collaboration with the University of Bologna.

  • Emerging Pollutants Project

    The term "Emerging Pollutants" means various biologically active substances of anthropic origin which may be present in water intended for human consumption and in waste water. The presence of these substances in water is considered a significant environmental problem with potential harmful effects on human health. In 2012, research and development activities, begun as far back as 2007, continued with the collaboration of major research institutes (including the Istituto Superiore di Sanità and the Istituto Mario Negri).
    In 2011, a joint initiative was agreed with the Politecnico di Milano to identify the best water treatment technologies. Under the scope of this collaboration, analyses were conducted in the first half of 2012 into the treatment technologies and drinking water supply chains currently in use to check their efficiency in removing certain micropollutants and the need for any upgrades.

  • Automatic leak detection

    This project consists of looking at innovative systems for automatic water leak detection, to be used in conjunction with the 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 leak simulation tool. The tool was ready in 2009, when it was rolled out to customers together with the acquisition tools completed the previous year. The mass of data collected has been used to enable the Group to better characterise the phenomenon. 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 was compared with that of the (accelerometer) sensor already tested.
    An experiment 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.

  • 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 association with 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 through biological methods.
    In the first half of 2012 work began on assessing the possibility of using hydrogen produced in traditional PEM fuel cells.

  • Automatic plant management

    This project, produced in association with ENEA, involves the development of a system for automatic management of the main operating parameters of water-treatment plants. The system must maintain the process conditions of a given plant at maximum efficiency, depending on the composition of the 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 what we knew about continuous-flow sludge treatment, and reveals new characteristics in the signals relating to the quantities monitored, helping to differentiate between standard operation or 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 the first months of 2012 the control logics and policies to implement into the system were identified.

  • Modelling water-treatment plants

    The purpose of this project, conducted in collaboration with ENEA, is to develop mathematical models for the simulation of depuration plant hydraulics and processes. The aim is to acquire the instruments and know-how necessary to begin coordinating the mathematical modelling of water-treatment plants for the Group. In 2009, the preliminary work was carried out to produce a model of the sample site and to select calculation software from those commercially available. In 2010, at the end of the evaluation phase, software licences were acquired. 2011 saw the start of modelling activities within the Group, still in the pilot phase throughout the first half of 2012.

  • Energy recovery from water-treatment plants

    In 2010, the possibility of energy recovery from water-treatment plants was 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 heat recovery from mains water using low-enthalpy heat-pump systems.

    As far as IPT/PAT are concerned, following further data analysis and field tests in the first half of 2012, a decision was taken to continue with the pre-feasibility study of an application at a different pressure reduction regulator in the Municipality of Bologna in order to optimise possible energy recovery.

  • Characterisation and analysis of polyethylene pipes

    Polyethylene pipes used for the mains water supply have a higher burst rate than pipes made from other materials. To examine the causes of this situation in greater detail, a project is underway to perform 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 bursts, 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 at the Department of Chemistry, Materials and Chemical Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano. In 2010, samples were taken from stretches of pipe that had suffered bursts, and a visual analysis was made of these test pieces. A statistical analysis of the bursts was conducted, and laboratory analyses were carried out. In 2011, laboratory tests were carried out for the precise characterisation of 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 major international event organised by the IWA on water loss. Work will continue with the preparation and updating of special technical documentation (such as application field, supply specifications, laboratory analysis, etc.).

  • Study of water meters and "antifreeze" technologies

    In 2011, Hera's Research & Development unit designed and conducted a series of tests with a view to identifying meters and other devices which might reduce the incidence of water meter breakdowns under adverse weather conditions. These breakdowns cause inconvenience for the user, operating difficulties for the system operator, increased operating costs and greater water losses.
    In the first half-year experiments were conducted into an innovative mechanical antifreeze device and further tests on other batches of meters are still in progress.
    The study, which will be completed by the end of the year, has already made it possible to identify a type of meter, freely available on the market, which is less vulnerable to frost than the standard type used.