Posted August 15th, 2017 by Tyler Irving

#EveryDropMatters: Five ways U of T Engineering research is improving water sustainability

  • Professor Amy Bilton (MIE) and graduate student Ahmed Mahmoud examine a model of a passive aerator for fish farms they are designing. The team is among many at U of T Engineering leading innovative research aimed at addressing global challenges related to water. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

Fresh water, salt water, wastewater, industrial water, drinking water: all water on Earth is part of the same cycle — and every drop matters. Yet around the world, water supply and quality are under increasing pressure from growing populations, industrial development and climate change.

U of T Engineering researchers are leading the way in addressing these pressing global challenges. Professors and students are working together to use UV light to destroy chemical contaminants, develop low-cost solutions for sanitation and effectively control and mitigate pollution by studying and deploying ancient microorganisms.

During the 2017 Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) — Canada’s largest fair — U of T Engineering students will showcase the innovative and multidisciplinary solutions being developed in the Faculty. At this interactive exhibit, CNE attendees can test their awareness of water consumption and conservation topics with a short quiz, share on social media, and win a reusable water bottle.

Here are five ways that U of T Engineering researchers are addressing pressing water challenges, across Canada and around the world:

Purifying Drinking Water

Zhijie Nie at water treatment plant

Zhjie Nie, a Civil Engineering MASc candidate, takes a sample at a Toronto-area drinking water treatment plant for her project on using activated carbon to remove contaminants. Partnerships between U of T Engineering, industry and government enable students to gain valuable experience in a professional setting. (Photo: Ron Hofmann)

From caffeine to birth control pills, most of the drugs we take pass through our bodies into wastewater and eventually into lakes and rivers. To keep our drinking water clean, we need new strategies to remove these pollutants.

In partnership with a number of municipalities, Professors Robert Andrews and Ron Hofmann (both CivE) are testing a set of new approaches known as advanced oxidation. They blast water with everything from ultraviolet light to ozone, breaking down chemical compounds and leading to safer and cleaner drinking water.

Learn more about Professor Andrews’ and Professor Hofmann’s research

Restoring Contaminated Groundwater

Professor Brent Sleep and his research team

Civil engineering Professor Brent Sleep oversees the establishment of the Remediation Education Network (RENEW), which researches new technologies to decontaminate soil and groundwater. (Photo: Roberta Baker)

Across North America, thousands of sites have been contaminated with industrial compounds. These contaminants can be degraded by bacteria, but the process is slow.

Professor Brent Sleep (CivE) and his team are tackling the challenge through a project called Innovative Technologies for Groundwater Remediation (INTEGRATE). The INTEGRATE team is accelerating the process by pre-treating soil and inserting custom communities of more efficient bacteria that break down contaminants more quickly.

Professor Elizabeth Edwards (ChemE) also pursues this approach, and has developed a commercial product that is particularly good at degrading chlorinated compounds, formerly used in dry cleaning facilities: a community of microbes called KB-1. More recently, she’s developed a new microbial community that can degrade benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — collectively known as BTEX — in soil and groundwater.

Learn more about Professor Sleep’s research

Learn more about Professor Edwards’ research

Sustainable Sanitation

Waterless toilet

A team of U of T engineers has been hard at work building a better toilet for the 2.5 billion people who lack access to safe sanitation. (Photo: Centre for Global Engineering)

Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people — a third of the global population — have no access to safe sanitation. This lack of hygiene is linked to the spread of many preventable diseases, such as diarrheal diseases that kill more than 500,000 children under the age of five every year.

A team led by chemical engineering professor and director of the Centre for Global Engineering, Yu-Ling Cheng, is developing a waterless toilet that can disinfect human waste without connections to water, sewer or grid power. With a total cost of less than five U.S. cents per person per day, it is designed for users in the developing world.

Learn more about Professor Cheng’s research

Designing for Stormwater

Catchbasin shield

Professor Jennifer Drake (CivE) and her students research ways to design our urban infrastructure to be resilient to storm surges, including this catchbasin shield which can capture sediments from stormwater runoff. (Photo: Pavneet Brar)

Buildings and roadways are designed to get rid of water as quickly as possible — but that can be a disaster during heavy rains, when it often leads to urban flooding.

Engineering professor Jennifer Drake (CivE) is using technologies such as water-permeable pavement to restore natural flow systems, which allow groundwater deposits to recharge more slowly, and encourage river-like flows of runoff. She is also optimizing the design and cost-effectiveness of green roofs, which can reduce peak stormwater flows.

Learn more about Jennifer Drake’s research

Rethinking Resource Extraction Remediation

Professor Lesley Warren and her team

Professor Lesley Warren (standing, at right) and her colleagues are mining the genomes of microbes that thrive in wastewater generated by the resource extraction industry. Insights into how these organisms derive energy from metals and sulphur compounds could lead to new strategies for preventing pollution and optimizing mine reclamation. (Photo courtesy Lesley Warren)

The mining and resource extraction industries generate millions of litres of contaminated wastewater annually, the chemistry of which is controlled by ancient microorganisms that breathe minerals in order to survive. An academic-industrial collaboration led by Lesley Warren, a professor in Civil Engineering and director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining, is studying the genomes of these organisms, gaining insight that could help both clean up contaminated water and prevent pollutants from forming in the first place.

Learn more about Professor Warren’s research