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Collaboration Possibilities are in the Pipeline

Image credit: Petras Gagilas https://flic.kr/p/b5AyDx

Dr John McAlesse from the University of Glasgow writes about some of the exciting opportunities for businesses and universities to collaborate to provide sustainable, affordable and fresh drinking water for everyone.

Note: This blog originally featured on the National Centre for Universities and Business website.

Prior to starting this post, I didn’t really appreciate the vast number of complex issues associated with water quality, scarcity and distribution. It has been a sharp learning curve helping to organise the water-related research here at the University into a more strategic, structured and industry relevant way. Our aim is to bring state-of-the-art science to bear on developing new technologies while also reaching out beyond traditional water engineers to involve the molecular microbiology, nanotechnology and the synthetic biology communities.

Gaining an understanding of the key drivers in the busy water research & development space has helped facilitate the gathering of expertise from across the campus, because the skill set needed isn’t restricted to any particular College or School. We are now represented under the collective identity of ‘Water@Glasgow’, with the three broad themes of Water Technologies, Water & the Environment and Water Governance & Economics. The latter two themes are fascinating enough, encompassing as they do topics such as the transport and fate of emerging contaminants (like microplastics), the role of international law in the management of transboundary aquifers and water as a “human right” and questions such as what happens to water quality when you clear a forest to accommodate a windfarm. I will limit this piece to some of the more exciting aspects in the water technologies space, where far greater coordination between businesses and universities will ultimately be required to drive the provision of sustainable, affordable and fresh drinking water for everyone.

Businesses will see collaboration opportunities emerge as attempts are made to address high priority issues. As the drive for more sophisticated, less labour-intensive methodology continues to grow, huge opportunities for sensor manufacturers, for example, to engage in monitoring water quality will arise. Critical factors such as water turbidity, pH and chlorine levels need to be monitored to maintain and control the process of passing water through a water treatment works, through large pipe networks (more on those pipes later!) before providing safe drinking water at your tap. Alternatives to chemical and energy intensive water technologies that currently serve dense urban populations or geographically dispersed small rural populations is another priority area. Centralised approaches do not favor half of the World’s population either. Can we deliver decentralized (water and wastewater) systems powered by local and renewable energy sources that are efficient at resource recovery and reuse? It’s an important question and one we are seeking to address. It is estimated that within 25 years, water demand in many countries will exceed supply by an estimated 40%, with one-third of humanity having half the water required for life's basics. At the moment, half of Scotland’s water supply and treatment facilities serve a fraction of the population in small rural communities.

In Scotland, Scottish Water is a statutory corporation providing all the water and sewerage services. Accountable to the public through Scottish Government, Scottish Water is also the prime mover at the centre of Scottish Government’s “Hydro Nation” agenda, a drive towards sustainable, integrated water management, a low carbon economy and a method of delivering domestic and international growth. Huge savings could be made in the way that Scotland delivers clean water with current estimates suggesting that Scottish Water use more than 5% of the domestic electricity supply providing that clean water. Transforming the economics of wastewater treatment using new approaches to microbial ecology could go some way to addressing this. The University has been in the vanguard of a new approach to manage, manipulate and optimise the action of anaerobic microbial communities which could help address the domestic issue with the exciting prospect of accelerated adoption in developing countries too. Also aerobic wastewater treatment technologies (where clean water is removed and biogas extracted) hold promise and will inevitably need industrial input to fully realise the potential.

Back to those pipes! Would you believe Scotland experiences the loss of 548M litres of water daily due to leaks alone, that’s 30% of the treated water getting lost from what I understand to be 30, 000 miles of aging pipeline infrastructure. What if the pipes could be re-sealed using microbial technology? Microbial mineral plugging has previously been used to plug pores in rock using bacterially precipitated minerals but we are now developing the technique as a means of re-sealing pipes as well.

We are ambitious but we won’t be able to bring our plans to fruition in isolation, delivering our solutions to water engineering problems will require industrial collaboration. Strategic partnerships with industry and the end-users of research is a key priority for the University to achieve impact that is not just economic but societal too.

John McAlesse

Dr John McAlesse is Business Partnerships Manager at the University of Glasgow.

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