Centre for Water Technology

FLYING START FOR THE NEW

CENTRE FOR WATER TECHNOLOGY

Clean water is one of the earth’s most valuable resources, and Danish research will pave the way for new technology for cheaper and better water treatment. This is directly in line with UN Sustainable Development Goal number 6 on clean water for everyone around the globe by 2030, and the new centre has received an unprecedented donation from a private foundation to boost activities.

The new Aarhus University Centre for Water Technology, WATEC, opened in October 2017 with great ambitions to gather the university’s scientific activities within water across departments and create an interdisciplinary research initiative with clear focus on application: How do we make the water cycles of the future sustainable? How do we secure high-quality drinking water for the burgeoning global population?

A few months after the centre opened, it received a DKK 40 million donation from the Poul Due Jensen Foundation, which has a strong philanthropic and commercial interest in making Denmark a leading nation in water technology.

“The university has a marvellous starting point for water research. Now we’re joining forces to research into new technology that can generate value for the international community and create a basis for a considerable export potential for Danish companies,” says Associate Professor Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

Together with the university’s strategic funds, some of the money will be used to establish an advanced sensor laboratory, so that the researchers can monitor the chemical and biological processes in water during treatment at an unprecedented level of detail.

The researchers want to be able to control the micro-organisms in water treatment much better. This is crucial for achieving intelligent and automated monitoring and for controlling their growth conditions.

Wastewater without waste
The centre’s engineering activities will focus in particular on technologies that make it possible to have cleaner and less expensive drinking water and, at the same time, exploit optimally the residual products from wastewater treatment.

“We have to think big and innovatively about treatment. Historically, our focus has been almost exclusively on water quality. But now we’ll start to look at how we can recycle the organic material in our wastewater efficiently enough to make it worthwhile. Cheap treatment and recycling technologies are the key to securing clean water for more people in the world,” says Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

Today, we manage sludge residues from the water treatment process by burning off carbon and nitrogen. But this is an untenable strategy if we are to realise the sustainable development goal on clean drinking water and sustainable exploitation of resources, according to Mr Ottosen:

“We want to turn wastewater treatment into a profitable business in terms of energy accounts. And we’ve already developed promising technologies that make it possible to exploit waste from wastewater treatment plants.”

Sludge becomes aviation fuel
Researchers are currently experimenting with various filtering technologies to collect and treat the valuable carbon in wastewater and subsequently convert it into high-value products such as chemicals, plastics and fuel.

All this is taking place at the world’s most advanced pilot plant, which is based on a technology called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL). By precisely controlling pressure and temperature, the plant converts the biomass into a thick oil similar to fossil crude oil. Researchers can then process the thick oil at a refinery and transform it into highly refined aviation fuel.

“In principle, we’ve already developed the technology to produce sludge-based fuel for jet engines. This can replace fossil fuels and make long-distance travel by air as we know it today a climate-neutral and sustainable method of travel. The problem is that we’re just working at experimental scale, and it’s very expensive, even at this level. But we want to make the processes more efficient - and therefore more profitable,” says Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

Bacteria to eliminate environmentally hazardous substances
Another major issue within water treatment is environmentally hazardous substances. These substances can be drug residues, endocrine disruptors, microplastics or heavy metals - all things we want to get out of our wastewater.

Wastewater is considerably contaminated today, but we have no effective method of removing these environmentally hazardous substances from the water. However, the researchers think that biological treatment could be the key to cleaner drinking water.

“Biological treatment requires detailed insight into the microbial conditions in the treatment process, and in this context sensor-based monitoring could give us a big advantage. Once we know how the micro-organisms behave, we can build the biotechnology that can help the right bacteria grow and attach themselves so that they aren’t flushed out of the treatment plant,” says Lars Ditlev Mørck Ottosen.

The researchers are also working on developing new biotechnologies to extract phosphorus from wastewater. Phosphorus is today a limited natural resource, and we will have exhausted our mines in the next 50-100 years.

FACTS

The Aarhus University Centre for Water Technology, WATEC, is led by Professor Niels Peter Revsbech, Department of Bioscience.

The multidisciplinary work at the centre involves the participation of the following departments and centres at Aarhus University:

  • Department of Agroecology
  • Department of Bioscience
  • Department of Geoscience
  • Department of Engineering
  • Department of Environmental Science
  • Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO)

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