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Research and Development

The Group's research activities in 2011 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 given to applied research into systems for the production of energy from renewable sources, with the start of works on the construction of Hlab, the Hera Group's energy laboratory.

The main research projects were:

  • 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 Forli. 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 on the measurement of actual yields and their evolution over time, in order to make an optimal and comparative evaluation of market solutions and state-of-the-art solutions. The other important aspect will concern identification and prevention of operating problems and evaluation of the 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 at the end of 2012, and experimental activities will be managed in collaboration with the University of Bologna.

  • Emerging Pollutants Project

    The term "Emerging Pollutants" (EP) means various biologically active substances of anthropic origin such as personal-care products, medicines, psychoactive substances associated with drug addiction, and the associated metabolites. Of these, endocrine interference agents form a special crossover category. The presence of these substances in water is considered to be one of the most important environmental problems of the last decade. In 2007, Hera launched a research project aimed at identifying the major EPs in water systems (with particular reference to natural water destined for purification), developing analytical methods for determining their quantities, conducting surveys on the presence of these substances in the water systems involved, and evaluating the removal effectiveness of current treatment systems (purification and depuration). Partnerships have been formed with the Istituto Superiore di Sanitą, the Istituto Mario Negri and the study group on "Interferenti endocrini e acque destinate al consumo umano" ("Endocrine interference agents and water intended for human consumption", or "EDinwater") sponsored by Fondazione Amga. In 2010, the set of parameters to be monitored was defined, and a control plan put into effect. In 2011, a joint initiative was begun with the Politecnico di Milano to identify the best water treatment technologies.

  • Automatic leak detection

    This project consists of looking at innovative systems for automatic 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 interesting. 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 completed in 2009, when it was rolled out to customers together with the acquisition tools created in the previous year. The large mass of data collected has enabled 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. Experimentation will continue in 2012 with a comparison between the current sensor (accelerometer) and an innovative device for this type of application (hydrophone).

  • 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 was begun on evaluating the viability of using biologically produced hydrogen to power fuel cells, as well as on assessing the practicality of using solid residues from combined hydrogen/methane bio-production as compost.

  • Automatic plant management

    This project, developed 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 data acquisition in the field was begun. 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.

  • 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 develop a model of the sample site and to select calculation software from among the commercially available packages. In 2010, at the end of the evaluation phase, software licences were acquired. 2011 saw the start of modelling activities within the Group, although the project is still in the pilot phase.

  • Energy recovery from water-treatment plants

    In 2010, investigations were made into the possibility of energy recovery from water-treatment plants, 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. In 2011, two further studies were begun: the first concerns energy recovery from the mains water supply using in-pipe-turbine (IPT) or pump-as-turbine (PAT) systems, while the second relates to heat recovery from mains water using low-enthalpy heat-pump systems.

  • 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. It is planned to present the results of this study at WaterLossEurope 2012, the largest international event of its kind, organised by the IWA on the theme of water leakage.

  • 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 manager, and water losses.
    The study, which will be completed in 2012, has already made it possible to identify a type of meter, freely available on the market, which is less vulnerable to frost than the type generally used.