Lystek International Inc.
Lystek International Inc. of Cambridge, Ontario is a successful privately-owned innovative biosolids and organics enterprise that leverages its innovative technologies to provide the most efficient solutions for municipalities and a growing list of business sectors, whose quest is to reduce waste, costs, airborne odors and greenhouse gas emissions.
The company was originally founded in the microbial research laboratories at the University of Waterloo by Dr. Owen Ward and Dr. Ajay Singh in 2000. Dr. Ward is widely recognized as a world-renowned microbiologist who is now retired but still conducts research and development for Lystek.
Lystek was brought to life as Dr. Ward’s third startup company after he was summoned to examine the way the Region of Waterloo was dealing with their biosolids. Dr. Ward quickly came to the conclusion that the region was trucking a high volume of liquid material and pumping a significant amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. At the same time Lystek’s current CTO Rick Mosher, an experienced engineer in waste management, became involved and believed there was a distinct opportunity to form a highly-skilled team that would be able to combine a vast amount of knowledge in engineering and microbiology to create a much more effective solution.
The multi-use Lystek system has the ability to optimize digesters and biological nutrient removal systems while also contributing to diversion and environmental sustainability. This is achieved by transforming non-hazardous, organic materials into nutrient-rich, federally-registered fertilizers and other, multi-purpose products.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Kevin Litwiller, Director of Business Development at Lystek, about the company’s ascension as a preeminent leader within the biosolids and organics management industry. “Much of the first eight years of the company were spent in a very careful, meticulous and exhaustive research and development mode,” he begins.
Throughout a 16-year history Lystek has nurtured stalwart connections with the University of Waterloo and other schools such as the University of Western Ontario in London and the University of Guelph, with the latter being known for its comprehensive agriculturally-oriented programs.
“We were able to establish a relationship with our very first customer, who’s still our customer today, which is the City of Guelph,” Litwiller says. “We then went through pilot-scale testing and proceeded to full commercialization with the City of Guelph as our first customer. It started in 2006 and by 2008 we were fully commercial.”
Cambridge just happens to be an excellent geographic location to have launched a business such as Lystek with close proximity to countless hi-tech resources in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and vast expertise in the agricultural sector coming from the Guelph area. However, Litwiller says there’s much more to it than just advantageous geographic positioning. “I think the company grew organically because there was a need for it, but there’s definitely that entrepreneurial spirit. A fundamental reason why Dr. Ward chose the University of Waterloo when he arrived in Canada from Ireland in the 1970s was because it was one of the few universities – not only in Canada but throughout the world – where the individual(s) retained the ownership rights to any and all developed intellectual property (IP), as opposed to those rights automatically being transferred to the educational institution.”
The Lystek system, which is straightforward to operate and maintain, has seen its commercial setup with the City of Guelph run like clockwork for the past eight years. The city had invested millions of dollars into a composting technology that was also intended to be a biosolids solution. As part of the entire initiative the city had constructed a massive 25,000-square-foot building but the technology and methodology fell far beneath expectations. In a later pilot test with Lystek it was determined that only about one-tenth of the space was actually required after being equipped with a little reactor and the Lystek system. From Day One to the present, the system has been able to handle the entire volume of biosolids on an annual basis within that same compact footprint.
The profile and scope of Lystek was profoundly enhanced in 2011 when majority ownership in the company was acquired by the Tomlinson Group of Ottawa, a family-owned business that began in the 1950s with just a couple of pickup trucks in the waste hauling business. Today it’s a billion-dollar corporation that has numerous corporate entities under its umbrella. Over the years, Tomlinson had become a very successful regional construction and environmental services company, but the executive management team recognized that in order to broaden their geographic scope, they needed to acquire a company like Lystek to promote expansion, and realize the potential for developing an international footprint, particularly in their environment services business.
There are currently five installations in Ontario, with one in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Two additional projects are coming to Ontario; one in Innisfil and the most recent having been announced for St. Thomas. There is also the first location in the United States in Fairfield, California, which is set out to be very similar to one in Southgate, Ontario in that it will be a regional facility. The central difference is that it’s being hosted at a wastewater treatment plant site called the Fairfield Suisun Sewer District.
“They are acting as a host site and we are partnered with them. It’s a 20-year, plus-10 agreement,” Litwiller says. “We’ll be offering and providing services in biosolids and organics management to basically the entire San Francisco Bay area.”
Technology and Deployment
Lystek’s patented and proven LysteMize™ process optimizes the performance of anaerobic digesters and transforms organic waste streams into LysteGro™, a high-value, nutrient-rich bio-fertilizer; and LysteCarb™, an alternative carbon source for biological nutrient removal (BNR) systems. The Lystek system has a small foot print (600 – 2,000 square feet) so it can be located at the back end of a wastewater treatment plant, or offsite, with virtually no interference to general daily plant operations.
LysteMized™ biosolids contain 40-50% of the total chemical oxygen demand (COD) as soluble COD and significantly higher volatile fatty acids, than standard biosolids. Therefore, they provide readily available organics for anaerobic digestion (AD) and BNR systems.
“LysteMize™ is a process which is effectively taking the technology that we have, deploying it at a wastewater treatment plant, be it industrial, commercial, municipal or otherwise, and setting up a recirculation to increase biogas production in digesters. Depending on how efficiently the digesters are running before we get there, we could actually increase biogas production by 30, 40, 50% percent or more,” Litwiller says.
LysteGro™ takes material that is organic and non-hazardous by nature, eliminates all the pathogens and creates a federally registered bio-fertilizer product that Lystek is able to sell to the public. LysteCarb™ utilizes the same system but it takes a portion of the material and recirculates it back into biological nutrient removal systems, which are becoming more and more common in wastewater treatment because of concerns with nutrient overloading in waterways.
“In that process, typically what they do is purchase methanol or glycerol as a carbon source to feed the BNR system. It is organically based, so it is safer and far more cost effective than methanol or glycerol,” Litwiller continues.
In systems using BNR, the normal process is to go to the marketplace and purchase methanol and glycerol, which are expensive chemicals, and not easy to deal with from an operational perspective. But it turns out that Lystek’s material is a tremendous source of carbon, eliminating the need for purchasing those aforementioned chemicals.
The Lystek technology can be deployed in two convenient ways. Firstly, it can be done right at the wastewater treatment plant, but as Litwiller points out, it is not just municipalities that have wastewater treatment plants that are in need organics management; it’s also food processors, breweries and a whole large market in the organic food waste domain.
“Those types of companies are required by government bodies to pre-treat their organic waste materials before they’re allowed to pump it down into the sewers and there are a lot of people that don’t understand that,” Litwiller explains.
The second method of deploying the technology is for Lystek to build, own and operate its own regional facilities such as the current venture in California and the one already established in the Township of Southgate in the village of Dundalk. In those instances, Lystek is acting as a central receiver for biosolids and organic, non-hazardous waste materials whereby they convert the material into the LysteGro™ product, which is a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)-registered fertilizer.
There are many communities and businesses where historical practice has been to take water and treat it while building lagoons and ploughing the material in, which amounts to a huge liability. At some point those lagoons must be cleaned out and in turn something has to happen to that material.
“With our regional facilities we’re able to offer services to municipalities and other generators of organic waste that can act as a central receiver and cover a geographic area that could be up to about 120km in radius,” Litwiller says. “For the one in Southgate, as it stands today, we have a large volume plant with environment certificates of approval (ECAs) to operate and divert and convert about 150,000 metric tonnes of biosolids and organics on an annual basis. Every drop of that material that we bring in gets converted and sold into the marketplace as LysteGro™. That is a huge game-changer in our industry.”
An undeniable advantage, beyond being the most effective and efficient method in the marketplace, is that the Lystek technology system is compact with a small footprint that is easy to operate and can be quickly deployed in the field. In North Battleford, from the beginning of negotiations with the customer to full deployment, the project was completed in a span of less than two years. In that particular instance, Lystek not only met the targeted budget but was able to install and deploy the technology with a permanent solution a full year ahead of the mandated deadline.
“We’ve been successful because our technology is proven,” Litwiller proudly says. “When we’re running our own facility we finance, own and operate them. We offer that option to customers across the board. If it makes sense and there is enough organic waste – which we view as raw resources, not waste – if there’s enough volume then we certainly entertain the building and commissioning of a regional facility.”
The team at Lystek is finding there is a huge interest in taking these materials and utilizing them for the full benefit of what they have to offer, which is not only the conversion of material into a safe bio-fertilizer product but also its biogas for green energy.
From Waste to Resource
At Lystek, the corporate philosophy and approach to a potentially colossal marketplace is that they’ve never viewed biosolids as waste material, but rather a raw resource that can be safely converted into a product with all the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) values of other fertilizers. As proof of that, Lystek has sold every drop of material they’ve brought to their Southgate installation and converted it to LysteGro™ and it’s gotten to the point where it’s so popular they can’t keep up with demand.
Farmers are extremely bottom-line oriented and recognize the financial benefits in using the Lystek product, which is markedly less expensive than commercial fertilizers. More importantly it has all the same NPK values but it also contains organic matter, which means the ability to rebuild the health of the soil over the long-term. A commercial chemical fertilizer leaves the farmer with a couple of troublesome challenges: they’re made with depleted resources such as phosphates and the organic material is not being returned to the soil.
Efficient, Practical Solutions
Lystek is comprised of a group of dedicated engineers, scientists, business development professionals and operational staff whose proven, low temperature process is a cutting-edge, cost effective, easy-to-operate, biosolids and organics management system. It can be installed as an onsite, (pre or post) anaerobic digestion solution.
“Our technology competes in a category called thermal hydrolysis process (THP). What makes us different, and I believe better, is that our system was designed from the very beginning to be cost efficient,” Litwiller says.
To put the cost element in perspective, a competitor’s deployment of their technology in a $160 million project in Washington serves well in a very large metropolitan centre but the inherent disadvantage is that it cannot be scaled down. It works on high temperature, high pressure treatment systems, and requires specially licenced operators to run such a complex system.
“Our system is designed to be small, simple to operate, easy to maintain and really easy to deploy,” Litwiller counters. “We can bolt on to existing infrastructure with little to no impact to what’s already been there.”
The executive team at Lystek has set very distinct goals for the future and they meet four times a year to discuss their strategic framework. Expansion will continue throughout Canada and the U.S., including California, which has many attractive qualities relating to Lystek’s synergistic core competencies. The goal is to demonstrate all the different solutions the technology can provide, which will serve to accelerate market penetration throughout North America.
“We expect that by 2020 we will have at least doubled our business,” Litwiller forecasts. “We’re proud to be a Canadian-born and bred company with Canadian technology coming out of a premier educational institution. The cleantech sector is an opportunity in this country to create jobs and to contribute to the circular economy. We would like to see that continuing and we would like to see a continued and expanded interest from our government, because we can help create jobs and spur the economy.”