Building Better Bugs: Canadian Facility Studies Biological Nutrient Removal

Calgary’s combined wastewater research facility — Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets — works to develop more efficient bacteria that could save billions of dollars.
Building Better Bugs: Canadian Facility Studies Biological Nutrient Removal
Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets, a research facility in Calgary, is working on treatment technologies that will remove existing and emerging contaminants from wastewater.

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Research performed at a wastewater treatment facility in Calgary, Canada, might one day help develop better processes for removing contaminants, save billions in infrastructure upgrades, prevent toxic effluent from entering a treatment plant and provide clean water for everyone on the planet.

“We tend to think of pathogens as the bacteria we’re most concerned about in wastewater treatment plants, but for BNR [biological nutrient removal] processes, bacteria are the key,” says Lee Jackson, Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets scientific director and professor of biological sciences at the University of Calgary. “If we can understand how to optimize nutrient removal processes, that could translate into potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in delayed infrastructure upgrades.”

ACWA is a research facility with 12, J-shaped streams, each 1,148 feet long, built on the 320-acre Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant southeast of Calgary, a growing city with a population of about 1.2 million. The $38.6 million research facility, launched in March, combines biologists, geologists and medical scientists at the University of Calgary campus, about 17 miles to the north, with engineers at the Pine Creek plant.

Common influent
“I know universities have partnerships with cities, so I guess it’s not entirely unique and neither is having a wastewater treatment facility located inside a wastewater treatment facility,” Jackson says. “There are places where companies can test their technologies. We are interested in removing pharmaceuticals, and the thing that’s different about our wastewater treatment plant is we have multiple treatment technologies that can be fed with the same source of influent. We take water from the secondary clarifiers and feed our wastewater treatment plant.”

Jackson says the unique facility enables researchers to test new technologies directly against one another, push them to failure and determine at what point they function best.

“We couldn’t do that if we weren’t able to take the effluent from our wastewater treatment plant and feed it back into the headworks of the Pine Creek facility,” he says. “We can compare membrane technologies head to head with mass oxidation technologies because we’re using the same source water for all and we have a state-of-the-art laboratory on site to measure the contaminants.”

A key feature of the ACWA site is its experimental streams. The outdoor structures replicate the hydrological conditions of nearby Jumpingpond Creek, which researchers chose as a model to create a more true-to-life environment than typical lab-scale experiments provide. The streams are filled with water drawn from the Bow River and populated with algae, amphibians, small fish and insects native to the region.

“The intent is to run the water 12 months of the year so we can look at how contaminant effects are transferred between generations with model fish that are in the streams, and develop new diagnostic tools of exposure and effect,” he says.

The beginnings
More than 15 years in development, ACWA took root in the 1990s during the planning phase of the Pine Creek plant. Built at a cost of $430 million, Pine Creek opened in May 2010. Able to treat up to 100 mld, it is one of three treatment plants in Calgary (Bonnybrook, 440 mld, and Fish Creek, 70 mld).

“The vision of a few key people at the City of Calgary was that if we could create a research component to accompany the plant’s construction and take advantage of the expertise at the University of Calgary, it might provide information down the road that would allow the city to make some infrastructure upgrades based on science,” Jackson says. “And if we could co-build facilities, what would we want the research to look like? The City of Calgary is going through an infrastructure upgrade right now at the Bonnybrook treatment plant. It’s a few hundred million dollars. These big facilities are not cheap.”

The future of sewers
Another possibility is the development of smart sewers that could identify and divert toxic effluent before it enters a treatment plant.

“If you’re a wastewater treatment plant operator, an operator’s worst nightmare is having something end up inside the facility that poisons most or all of the bacteria that are doing the BNR,” he says. “If that happens, as a treatment plant operator you have a big problem on your hands. You may be discharging effluent that’s out of compliance with guidelines and regulations.”

The smart sewer concept is an outgrowth of intelligent operations for water (IOW) research being done in partnership with IBM.

“If we could put sensors on the sewers, and we knew what to look for, we could potentially see a problem arriving at the wastewater treatment plant before it actually got to the front door,” Jackson says. “At Pine Creek, the city has built a retention pond that can store about 12 hours worth of influent. So if they saw something coming, like a toxin from a chemical spill, and that chemical was measured in the sewer water approaching the plant, an operator could divert that water into the detention pond until that slug of toxin passed.”

Jackson says the ultimate goal of the ACWA research center is to provide clean water for everyone on the planet.

“One in five people around the world today doesn’t have access to clean water. And improper sanitation is a big part of it,” he says.

“The best solution might be a combination of filtration to remove inorganic particles, bacteria and viruses and then oxidation to decompose many of the remaining contaminants. If we can develop modules that are fairly simple to run both in terms of technical competence and energy requirements, and we can make those affordable, that would be a long-term vision of success for ACWA.”


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