By Anna Lardinois
If you are a Milwaukeean who associates heavy rains with basement flooding and sewage backups, you are not alone. Dr. Daniel Zitomer of Marquette University was one of the many city dwellers who found their basements flooded after a powerful rainstorm rolled through the area in July 2010. Rainwater overwhelmed the sewer system, leaving the overflow with nowhere to go but into people’s basements, and into Lake Michigan. Flooding is an annual problem in our city, particularly in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Zitomer, an engineering professor, was certain something could be done to protect both homes and the lake from the untreated water that overwhelmed Milwaukee’s sewer systems, as well as help the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District meet their 2035 strategic vision of zero overflows and zero basement backups. So he began to work on the problem that impacts an estimated 800 cities throughout the nation.
Graduate student and environmental engineer Paige Peters was recruited to work on the project that launched in 2015 with a grant from the National Science Foundation Water and Equipment Policy Industry-University Cooperative Research Center.
At the onset of the project, the group noted that it takes about eight hours to safely treat wastewater through the current system. They determined if they could dramatically cut down the processing time, they would be able to move water out of the system quickly and avoid the processing backups that cause flooding. By employing a process that uses both physical and chemical treatment, the team developed a method for treating wastewater 1500% faster than the current methods being used.
The project had a number of early successes, and in June 2016 it was decided the project should move forward as an LLC. Rapid Radicals Technology was formed to begin offering the technology being developed in the lab to the cities that could use these services. Peters, a self-described adventure seeker, was eager to take the helm of the newly formed company.
Peters has always been drawn to the water. When considering her relationship to the Earth’s most abundant resource, she states “I was a swimmer for eight years growing up, so water is where I feel the most comfortable.” Her time in the pool, coupled with frequent visits to Lake Michigan throughout her suburban Milwaukee childhood, made water a powerful force in the life of founder and CEO of Rapid Radicals Technology.
“My interest in engineering was founded on the idea of wanting to be helpful and wanting to affect change,” she said. “I had a conversation with my father when I was in my freshman year of undergrad, where I (said) ‘engineering is really hard.’ I wasn’t doing well in chemistry, and I didn’t want to continue. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, if you really want to help people, you have to have a skill. You have to be able to contribute something.’ Engineering made the most sense to me as this kind of skill, and as soon as I had that conversation with him, everything just made sense. It was doing things for a good reason and the struggle was worth it through engineering school because I had this purpose and water within that made the most sense because it is the thing that brings us together.”
To Peters, water is “inherently social and public” in nature.
“It non-selectively gives life,” she said. “It connects us all. And so for me, wanting to be an engineer, that was affecting change on a public level. … It’s not about the technical solution, it’s about helping make all those key factors line up for success, and let infrastructure really be what it needs to be for different communities. The desire to affect change started it all, and science made the most sense. And water was the way I wanted to do it.”
The company won the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Wisconsin Innovation Awards and just landed a $983,995 phase two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation in November. The additional funding will allow Peters to expand her team and build a second pilot water treatment facility.
A pilot system is funded by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District through a research grant to Marquette and a phase one STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer program grant) from National Science Foundation.
“That system is down at their South Shore facility, and we’ve been operating it for two years now,” Peters said. ”That system is going to stay there, and we’re going to use this funding to build another pilot.”
The CEO, who designs and builds the company’s pilot water treatment facilities, describes the new location as, “a bigger version of it, which is going to allow us to test chemical treatment on a larger scale and actually test it at real outfalls. The location ready systems would be implemented during storm events to eliminate the overflow aspect.”
Peters is an advocate for grassroots change and urges everyone who flushes a toilet to consider their impact on the sewer system.
“We can not live in cities without reliable infrastructure that safely brings water to your home and infrastructure that safely carries wastewater away from your home,” Peters said. “It’s the only thing that allows us to live in cities..”
She continues, “Everybody should care more about this. … As a community, we should be building accountability around the infrastructure that serves us. And what does that look like? Does it look like being willing to pay a little bit more so that we can maintain that infrastructure? Is it asking more questions and placing less blame? I think it’s all of that, but it really is something that affects all of us.”
She advocates for collective solutions to responsible stewardship of water as a natural resource.
“Of course, nobody wants to spend more money,” Peters said. “But I would spend whatever it took to make sure that the water that came to my home was safe for my family, and that the wastewater was conveyed in a way that doesn’t pollute our rivers or doesn’t end up in the lake. I think if you asked anybody that they would agree. But the next steps — ‘What action are you willing to take?’ — is a difficult question for people.”
Rapid Radicals uses poet W.H Auden’s line, “water is the soul of the Earth,” as one of its mottos, and the sentiment is what drives the company forward.
“So that’s the challenge I put out there is to think about how much this service means to you,” Peters said. “We can all agree water itself is a human right. But the service to get that water to you is a whole complicated, expensive thing that we should be willing to question the way that we see it now. It’s not so complicated that only engineers are working on this.”
To follow this company determined to enact positive change for people and the environment, connect with them via LinkedIn.