A new water treatment invention from UBC promises to provide effective, cheap and easy-to-maintain treatment systems for remote communities both in Canada and in the developing world.
One of the main drawbacks of many treatment operations used to make drinkable water is the need for ongoing maintenance of the system. The so-called fouling control measures involved in keeping a treatment system clean of debris and operational, using chemical agents and backwashing the machinery, are labour-intensive and require special expertise.
And while many smaller and rural communities may have the resources to pay for the water filtration plant itself, the cost of upkeep is often too exorbitant. This is where UBC civil engineering professor Pierre Bérubé sees the advantage of his team’s new creation —a water treatment system that uses bacteria to break down the trapped pollutants and keep the treatment system functioning.
“What our technology does is it removes the need for all those chemicals and complex mechanical systems,” Bérubé said to CTV News. “We’ve gone from a system that essentially requires 24-hour-a-day attention to something that requires half-an-hour-a-day of attention.”
A product of UBC’s Filtration Technology Group, the new process uses a series of water tanks containing spaghetti-like fibre membranes that trap contaminants such as dirt, organic particles, even other bacteria and viruses, while a microbial community (a biofilm) on the membrane surface does the job of breaking down trapped particles. The researchers report that 99.9 per cent of contaminants were removed in operational trials.
The passive membrane system also uses plain old gravity instead of mechanical pumps to get water flowing through to clear out the membranes, making it almost completely hands-off and worry-free.
“Often it is a part-time person that is responsible for the water treatment system that is also responsible for maintaining fire hydrants, cleaning the roads, and a whole bunch of other civil infrastructure requirements,” Bérubé said. “Our system under those circumstances becomes very feasible. All you need to do is go in every day and check the system to make sure it is still functioning, and do a bit of routine cleaning.”
Developed with support from the federally funded Canada-India research organization IC-Impacts, the new treatment system will be field tested next week in West Vancouver, but researchers are already eyeing its installation in some of Canada’s First Nations communities.
“In pretty much all provinces there is a number of communities that are currently on boil water advisories, literally in the number of thousands of small systems,” said Bérubé. “In B.C. at any one point in time, I think there are over 300, up to 500 boil water advisories.”
In its 2016 federal budget, the Canadian government committed $1.8 billion over five years towards ending all long-term drinking water advisories for First Nations communities. A February report from the David Suzuki Foundation and the Council of Canadians criticized the government’s lack of progress on the issue, calling for more input from First Nations on the decision-making processes, greater transparency on government actions and greater expediency in delivering on their promise.
A recent CBC investigation found that two out of every three Canadian First Nations communities had been under a drinking water advisory in the past ten years.