PN 28/21: Hydrogen-power from sewage and clean river tech win share of £36 million Ofwat fund for cutting-edge water sector innovation


A project to slash greenhouse gas emission and energy demand of used water processing and create a new source of hydrogen energy, and a project in partnership with the Rivers Trust and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to clean up the country’s rivers, are today announced as two of the nine winners of Ofwat’s first Water Breakthrough Challenge. The competition aims to deliver scalable innovations in the water sector with lasting impact. Other projects focus on reducing customer bills through using artificial intelligence to prevent leaks and reduce wastage and a project to deliver significant water-saving solutions in response to new housing developments.

£9 million has been awarded to projects that will tackle the health of rivers and waterways with solutions aimed at making them cleaner and ensuring water sources are resilient in a changing climate. A further £12.8 million has been awarded to projects that will target the need to drastically reduce the emission of CO2 and other pollutants from the water treatment process as the country strives to lower energy demand and achieve its net zero ambitions. Finally, £14.2 million has been awarded to projects that aim to resolve challenges facing communities and vulnerable water users, as well as reduce leakages to benefit customers and slash bills.

£6.4 million has been awarded to Catchment Systems Thinking Cooperative (CaSTCo) for a project which will revolutionise the way crucial data about England and Wales’ water environment is shared. It will do this through low-cost sensors, engagement with citizen scientists, and the development of a new national framework for how data is managed, with a particular focus on the health of the nation’s rivers. The partnership is led by United Utilities and involves the Rivers Trust, nine water companies, academia and conservation charities including ZSL. This project will ensure there is robust evidence base for tackling environmental challenges with over £4.34 million of the prize money going directly to river trusts.

Anglian Water’s Triple Carbon Reduction solution – in a partnership including University of East Anglia, Brunel University, Cranfield University and Element Energy Ltd – has won over £3.5 million. It will use new technologies to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and deliver up to 85% reduction in energy use for used water treatment while providing a new renewable energy source through hydrogen production. The water industry consumes between 2% and 3% of electricity produced in the UK – equivalent to 3.8-5.7 million tonnes of oil annually – and around 55% of this is linked to the processing of wastewater.

John Russell, Senior Director at Ofwat said:

“From Airbus and Microsoft to ZSL and the Rivers Trust, the Water Breakthrough Challenge has led to the formation of exciting partnerships with water companies to improve services for customers and improve the environmental footprint of the sector. Each of the winners will contribute to the resilience, sustainability and effectiveness of the water sector in the years to come for the benefit of customers across the country. Thank you to the independent judging panel for its challenge and insight in recommending these impressive winners.”

Holly Jamieson, New Frontiers Director, Nesta Challenges said:

“The cross-sectoral collaborations established by water companies, academia, engineering and technology sectors in response to the Water Breakthrough Challenge are hugely impressive. From turning sewage into a valuable natural resource to the smart use of open data to reduce negative environmental impacts and reduce costs for water customers, today’s funding is an exciting step for the water industry in the UK. I congratulate all of the winners and look forward to seeing them deliver their projects in the months and years to come.”

The Water Breakthrough Challenge contributes to water regulator Ofwat’s goal of creating an innovative and collaborative water sector that can meet the needs of customers, society, and the environment into the future. The Challenge funds initiatives that water companies would otherwise be unable to invest in or explore. New innovation competitions will be announced through to 2025, however Ofwat’s goal is that the Innovation Fund’s impact will be felt well beyond this.

To find out more about the winners, and find out how to enter the second Water Breakthrough Challenge from Ofwat, Nesta Challenges and Arup, visit:


Notes to editors

For all media enquiries contact:

Robyn Margetts, [email protected] OR Andrew McKay, [email protected]

Quotes from the winning teams are available on request.

Descriptions of the nine winning teams

CaSTCo: Catchment Systems Thinking Cooperative (CaSTCo)

  • Catchment Systems Thinking Cooperative (CaSTCo) – a partnership led by United Utilities between the Rivers Trust, twelve water and sewerage companies as well as academia and environmental charities – has been awarded £7.1 million to revolutionise the way crucial data about England and Wales’ water environment is gathered and shared, in particular on the health of the nation’s rivers. This project will ensure there is robust evidence base for tackling environmental challenges with direct support for local evidence gathering and community engagement in eight demonstration catchments, and a national framework of standardised tools and training. Project partners: United Utilities, The Rivers Trust, Thames Water Utilities Ltd, South West Water Ltd, Southern Water Services Ltd, Dŵr Cymru Anglian Water Services Ltd, Severn Trent Water Ltd, Yorkshire Water Services Ltd, Northumbrian Water Ltd, Affinity Water, South East Water, Earthwatch Institute, The Freshwater Biological Association, The Zoological Society of London, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Cardiff University, University of Exeter, Natural Course EU Life Integrated Project, Hummingbird Technologies

Artificial Intelligence of Things Enabling Autonomous Waste Catchments

  • A cross-sector coalition, led by Seven Trent Water – with partners including Microsoft, BT, the National Cyber Security Centre and the University of Exeter – to pilot the use of artificial intelligence that monitors a waste catchment area in real time to minimise the risk of flooding and sewage pollution. With the water industry accounting for 35% of river pollution, the project has received around £2 million to develop new and integrated approaches for spill prevention. Project partners: Severn Trent Water, South West Water, Southern Water, Thames Water, Hafren Dyfrdwy Water, Northumbrian Water, Microsoft, Rockwell, British Telecom, Blackburn-Starling, 8Powe, National Cyber Security Centre, Exeter University

Flexible local water supply schemes pilot

  • Bristol Water, in partnership with Binnies, RWE, Castle Water and The University West of England has been awarded over £620,000 to pilot a novel solution to drought planning while reinventing the water retail market as we know it. The first of its kind project will pilot the design of localised third-party water supply and treatment, seeking to overcome current market blockers. The project could deliver huge benefits for drought resistance and put more freedom into the hands of water retailers to incentivise business customers to save water. Project partners: Bristol Water, Binnies, RWE, Castle Water, University of the West of England.

Transforming the energy balance of wastewater treatment

  • A consortium led by Thames Water– with the University of South Wales, Dwr Cyrmu Welsh Water, South West Water, United Utilities, Scottish Water, Yorkshire Water and Northumbrian Water – has been awarded more than £6 million to decarbonise wastewater treatment – reducing nitrogen oxide emissions and recovering beneficial resources including phosphorus and nitrogen.  The water industry consumes between two and three per cent of electricity produced in the UK and around 55 per cent of this – the equivalent of powering over 1.2 million homes – is linked to the processing of wastewater. The project is developing solutions that would reduce the energy required for wastewater treatment. Project partners: Thames Water, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, University of South Wales, South West Water, and United Utilities

Triple Carbon Reduction

  • Anglian Water’s Triple Carbon Reductionsolution, delivered in partnership with Oxymem, Element Energy Ltd, Jacobs, Cranfield University, University of East Anglia, Brunel University and Severn Trent, Scottish Water, Northern Ireland Water and United Utilities, has been awarded more than £3.5 million. It will use novel technologies to target a step change reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and electricity use in used water treatment, and provide a new renewable energy source through green hydrogen production. A ‘triple carbon’ synergy and contribution towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Project partners: Anglian Water Jacobs UK Ltd, Oxymem Ltd, Element Energy Ltd, Northern Ireland Water Ltd, Severn Trent Water Ltd, Scottish Water Ltd, University of East Anglia, Brunel University, Cranfield University

Alternative approaches to phosphorus removal on rural wastewater treatment works

  • The water industry is heavily dependent on the use of metal-based coagulants for the removal of phosphorus on rural wastewater treatment plants. The fragility of this approach has been highlighted as recently as September 2021 when the BBC reported on the need for the Environment Agency to allow reductions in chemical use to address lorry driver shortages. We need more sustainable solutions if we are to maintain water quality within our watercourses and reduce our carbon footprints. In partnership with Southern Water, Thames Water, University of Portsmouth, Power & Water, Kolina, Evergreen and Hydro Industries, United Utilities will lead a project providing a holistic view of what can be achieved using alternative phosphorus removal approaches. The UK water industry spends in the region of £39M/year on metal coagulants. Finding a suitable alternative would reduce this and the carbon associated with the manufacture and delivery of these chemicals. Project partners: United Utilities, Southern Water, Thames Water, University of Portsmouth, Power & Water, Evergreen, Hydro Industries, Kolina

Water neutrality at NAV sites

  • Affinity Water’s project delivers a sustainable, water-saving solution in response to new housing developments being built. Winning £2.9 million, this project will minimise water demand and offset water consumption with new technologies, to ensure the total water use in the community remains the same as it was before the new homes were built. We will do this by installing water saving devices in customers’ homes – such as shower heads, tap inserts and larger equipment that recycle washing machine water or collect rainwater. This will mean customers use less in their homes. We will also install larger technologies on commercial buildings like schools and leisure centres – for example greywater recycling and ultra low flush toilets. By combining the reductions from customers and commercial building the total amount of water used within the area will remain the same. We have partnered with 3 different NAV sites (smaller water companies that manage new build housing developments). This allows us to trial different approaches and see which options work best, as well as helping smaller companies break into the market. Customers will have lower bills, water companies will be able to trial water neutrality at scale and the smaller water providers (NAVs) will benefit from better access to the market and strengthened industry partnerships. Project partners: Affinity Water, Albion Water Limited, BUUK Infrastructure UK No 2 Ltd, Propelair – Phoenix Product Development Ltd,H2OiQ Ltd, SDS Ltd, Hydraloop International, Skewb

Transforming Customers’ Lives: Integrated Pathways to Fair and Sustainable Water (FAIR WATER)

  • The Fair Water project, led by Northumbrian Water alongside partners including National Energy Action, Northern Gas Networks, Newcastle University and Procter & Gamble, aims to test and develop more effective and sustainable water and energy solutions for people’s homes – including those on low-incomes, the elderly and vulnerable – to find tailored solutions to reducing carbon through energy and water efficiency. For example, this will focus on encouraging behaviour changes and developing new product innovations for task-based water use in the home. To achieve this goal, the project was awarded almost £3.8 million. Project partners: Northumbrian Water, Northern Gas Networks Ltd, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Proctor & Gamble Technical Centres Limited, National Energy Action

Safe Smart Systems – Embedding resilience for the future through automation and artificial intelligence

  • Anglian Water and its partners Jacobs, Skanska, Imperial College, Airbus Defence and Space, Microsoft and the University of Sheffield, and fellow water companies South West Water, Portsmouth Water and Affinity Water, have been awarded £7.5 million for their Safe Smart Systems project. The project will use artificial intelligence and mathematical optimisation to improve long-term operational resilience in the face of climate change and rapid population growth. It will identify, predict, and manage vulnerabilities to reduce leakage, interruptions, and pressure issues across the whole water cycle. Safe Smart Systems focuses on the first steps to achieve autonomous control in water systems across the UK. Project partners: Anglian Water, Affinity Water Limited, Airbus Defence and Space, BIM4Water, Bristol Water, Centre for Digital Built Britain, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, Jacobs UK Limited, Microsoft, Portsmouth Water Limited, Skanska UK PLC, South West Water Ltd, Unity Software Inc, The University of Sheffield.

About Ofwat’s innovation fund and the Water Breakthrough Challenge competition

About Ofwat’s Innovation Fund

Ofwat has established a £200 million Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment.

The Water Breakthrough Challenge is run by Ofwat and Nesta Challenges in partnership with Arup and is the second in a series of competitions funded through the Fund following the Innovation in Water Challenge earlier this year.

Entries were encouraged from water companies in England and Wales, alongside partnerships with organisations within and outside the water sector, including universities and institutes, retailers, start-ups, or small businesses in sectors such as energy, manufacturing, health, or financial services. To contact Ofwat’s press office, please call 07458 126271  

Ofwat Water Breakthrough Challenge Judges

  • Anusha Shah, Director Resilient Cities, Arcadis , BEng, CEng, FICE (Chair)
  • Paul Connell, Founder, Open Data Institute Leeds
  • Prof Tony Conway, Visiting Professor, Sheffield University and prior Executive Director, United Utilities
  • Sharon Darcy, Director, Sustainability First
  • Paul O’Callaghan, Founder & CEO, BlueTech Research & Brave Blue World
  • Niki Roach, President, The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management , Director and Co-Founder of AxiaOrigin, FCIWEM, CEnv
  • Frank Rogalla, Director of Innovation and Technology, Aqualia (Spain)
  • Kalanithy Vairavamoorthy, Executive Director, International Water Association

About the Second Water Breakthrough Challenge

A second Water Breakthrough Challenge will open for entries on 11 October 2021 to provide funding for further innovative water sector initiatives.  Up to £35 million will be available to be shared between entries that deliver benefits for water customers, society and the environment

Water companies in England and Wales, as well as partnerships with organisations in the water sector supply chain and beyond, are encouraged to apply. A total of £5 million is available through the ‘Catalyst Stream’ for entries that bid for between £100,000 and £1 million. A total of £30 million is available through the ‘Transform Stream’ for entries that bid between £1 million and £10 million.

About Nesta and Nesta Challenges

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills, and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society. We’ve spent over 20 years working out the best ways to make change happen through research and experimenting, and we’ve applied that to our work in innovation policy, health, education, government innovation and the creative economy and arts.

Within Nesta, Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions. We shine a spotlight where it matters and incentivise people to solve these issues. We are independent supporters of change to help communities thrive and inspire the best placed, most diverse groups of people around the world to act.

We support the boldest and bravest ideas to become real and seed long term change to advance society and build a better future for everyone. We are part of the innovation foundation, Nesta. We are challengers. We are innovators. We are game changers.

About Arup /

Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists, working across every aspect of today’s built environment. Together we help our clients solve their most complex challenges – turning exciting ideas into tangible reality as we strive to find a better way and shape a better world. With a community of over 1700 water professionals, Arup is leading global thinking across key areas like innovation, resilience, net zero carbon and sustainable water management.