By the third grade, most children have been taught that about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. However, of all the water on our planet, more than 99 percent of it is unusable by humans and many other living things.1
Scientists, business owners, non-profit organizations, and governments around the planet are trying to find solutions to water scarcity and water quality problems. Innovation in research and product development, as well as water treatment techniques, will hopefully, one day, eliminate the threats to water resources.
Research developments in water quality and wastewater treatment
Independent labs, research institutes, and academic teams around the world are conducting tests and developing innovations that can not only detect pollutants in our water supply but also provide new treatment technologies for wastewater management systems. Below are just a few examples of the progress being made in the field of water quality and wastewater treatment.
A research team at North Carolina State University has developed a synthetic polymer that can remove certain dyes from water2, a new potential method for cleaning wastewater from textile and cosmetics manufacturers, as well as other industries. Dyes pose a risk to human health and are considered an environmental pollutant, blocking sunlight and impairing photosynthesis.
University of Albany waste water treatment lab researchers determined that modified clay is a better sorbent than granular activated carbon (GAC) at removing per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from drinking water and wastewater. GAC is most widely used to remove PFAS but has a much lower efficiency in removing short-chain perfluoroalkyl acids. The study suggests that using the modified clay, as well as two different modified versions of current sorbents, offers lower cost and faster sorption, requires less energy to produce, and removes all tested PFAS.3
A team at the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust has invented an autonomous microfluidic water quality monitoring device that could replace the traditional process of collecting on-site samples, mixing the samples with reagents, and then running the samples through a separate device at the lab for bacteria detection. This new technology, preloaded with reagents in independent wells, could be submerged and analyze the water immediately, saving time and eliminating the need to send samples to a laboratory.4
The most traditional wastewater treatment methods include a screening stage to remove large debris, sedimentation tanks to remove remaining biosolids, a trickling filter to trap bacteria, and then a chlorination process to kill pathogenic bacteria and reduce odor. But with the increasing need to reuse water, advanced purification processes are needed to transform treated wastewater into high-quality water suited to enter the water supply system.
There are two general types of potable reuse, indirect and direct. Indirect potable reuse introduces purified water from the wastewater treatment facilities into an environmental buffer, like an aquifer, lake, or river, before the water is reintroduced into the drinking water treatment plant. Direct potable reuse skips the environmental buffer and introduces the treated, purified water directly into the water supply system.
The Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) in California is the world’s largest water purification system for indirect potable reuse. Wastewater from the Orange County sanitation district is routed to the GWRS where it undergoes microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and an ultraviolet light treatment before being pumped into aquifers in the groundwater basin where it will eventually reenter the local drinking water supply.5
The microfiltration process filters out protozoa, bacteria, and some viruses. The reverse osmosis process forces the water through a polymer membrane to remove dissolved chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Finally, the water is exposed to high-intensity ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to eliminate any trace amounts of organic compounds that may have been missed in the other methods.
Currently, direct potable reuse (DPR) is legal in Texas and authorized on a case-by-case basis in Arizona. Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission adopted new regulations in November 2022 to authorize the implementation of direct potable reuse. California and Florida are formulating direct potable reuse regulations as well.
Big Springs, Texas, built the country’s first DPR facility almost 10 years ago. The Colorado River Municipal Water District uses a DPR system that purifies treated wastewater and then directly incorporates it back into the city’s main water supply immediately, with no environmental buffer.
Treatment plants conserve energy
With an emphasis on being environmentally friendly and reducing or eliminating carbon emissions, the water treatment sector has begun adopting energy and emissions-saving technologies. Wastewater treatment plants can harness the chemical energy in sewage sludge, the left-over, semi-solid material produced during the initial stages of industrial treatment, to produce biogas that is methane rich. Utilities can sell this energy back to the grid to generate revenue or use it to power the treatment plant.
The first wastewater treatment plant in the Pacific Northwest to reach net zero energy status (plant produces as much energy as it uses) was in the city of Gresham, Oregon. The plant accepts fats, oils, and grease from local restaurants, converts the recycled waste to biogas, and then converts the biogas into heat and electricity. The excess energy supplies the city’s grid, saving Gresham an estimated $500,000 a year in electricity costs.6
The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) wastewater treatment plant in Oakland, California, operates a similar process. EBMUD accepts organic wastes from local food processors, food growers, and livestock producers to create biofuel. Any excess power is sold to the Port of Oakland, saving about $3 million a year.8,9
The District of Columbia is taking another approach to offset energy costs, relying on solar power to generate some of the energy needed to operate their water treatment plants. Blue Plains Advanced Water Treatment Facility was the first to install solar power panels, the second-largest solar array in all of DC. Over the next ten years, DC plans to implement solar at nine more treatment facilities as part of a program called “Solar for All”. The goal is to generate enough energy to provide energy bill credits to lower-income households.7
Laboratory informatics software solutions to manage testing
Wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities rely on their laboratory scientists to analyze water samples and develop new ways to remove contaminants. Water treatment labs are integral in regulating water quality to safeguard against environmental and public safety risks. Water treatment labs also ensure the sustainability and reliability of water treatment, wastewater treatment, wastewater collection, and reuse processes for the citizens in communities across the country and around the world.
The management of high throughput of samples, collection schedules, and workflows, as well as varying local and national regulatory requirements, is difficult to accomplish in a paper-based or spreadsheet system. Water treatment labs are turning to modern laboratory information management system (LIMS) software, like the LabLynx ELab LIMS, to automate field sample collection, improve sample tracking, manage quality control, and generate reports. These tasks as well as document management, audit trails, chain of custody tracking, and data protection help monitor the performance of a water testing lab and track compliance to streamline accreditation and certification efforts.
To learn more about the LabLynx ELab LIMS for Water Quality testing, visit www.lablynx.com.