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Improving water quality for communities

Innovative College-University collaboration leads to new water treatment technology

A major point of contention in the twenty-first century is water. Many nations around the world don’t have enough of it; much of it is dirty or contaminated; it is a precious resource. Dr. Onita Basu, an associate professor in Environmental Engineering at Carleton University, has been working with Humber College and industry partner MS Filter Inc. to improve water filtration, and their innovations will lead to safer, more environmentally-friendly filtration techniques throughout Canada.

Dr. Basu’s research team conducted experiments in the lab, in addition to a pilot trailer—a miniature version of a treatment plant—provided by MS Filter Inc. in order to identify differences in water filtration between the two. A pilot trailer is equipped with, among other components, a biofilter, which is a tool used to treat water before it makes its way to a distribution system.

MS Filter Inc. had come to them with a research problem to investigate: as the temperatures of Canadian water sources are changeable, the performance quality of biofilters plummets during the winter. What, if any, factors are involved in this issue other than temperature changes? How can these concerns be managed?

The team assessed the quality of water coming in and out and were able to identify that the nutrient ratio in the source water—notably, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous—greatly impacted the performance of the trailer in the organic carbon removal process, and, more importantly, that the method of backwashing the biofilter column seriously affected the column’s efficiency. In the lab, the team tested ten different sequences to find the most appropriate solutions to improve organic carbon removal from the water.

The best way to fix the biofiltration issues is to adopt separate backwashing protocols for summer and winter to decrease system limitations and to improve the organic carbon removal process. As a next step, Dr. Basu intends to bring more industrial partners into her research and conduct more case-specific testing. “Any plant in Canada that has a biofilter can benefit from this information, and our goal is to share this information as much as possible because it will only help optimize all biofilters.”

The partnership between Carleton University and Humber College was made possible partly with the NSERC College-University Idea to Innovation Grant. According to Dr. Basu the collaboration cultivated a great combination of skill sets in the lab. Humber students, who had great practical knowledge, operated the pilot trailer and were able to carry out physical and technical activities.

Dr. Basu, who hopes to partner with more colleges in the future, praises the program for its opportunity for collaboration and aptly describes the different capabilities of college and university students: “The college students have great 3D thinking skills, and the graduate students at Carleton have great 2D thinking skills … they really learned from each other.”

“The college students were really hands-on,” agrees Sarra Ikhlef, graduate student and research coordinator at Dr. Basu’s lab. “If we had problems troubleshooting the system, they would find a solution immediately, whereas it took us a while.”

Without the NSERC grant, Dr. Basu says that her team would not have had a research project to begin with. “NSERC has provided the core of the funding that allowed the partnership to come together,” she says. “It’s such a good program.”