Professors Don Mavinic and Victor Lo tap into significant new funding to scale up research

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 | By Lindsay Cashin

Two key research initiatives helmed by members of the environmental engineering group at UBC Civil Engineering are set to receive an unprecedented amount of funding to scale up their investigations at three facilities, with the aim of eventually implementing their new technology as a package to improve wastewater treatment processes in Metro Vancouver and beyond.

Professors Don Mavinic and Victor Lo have been working for twelve years in their respective fields of expertise to develop two new types of technology that are now seeing a significant boost in public investment, thanks to the promise their innovations show in helping recover resources, save money for municipalities, and protect the environment.

Both technologies work together as a package to address two major problems facing the wastewater treatment sector: struvite, a mineral left behind in pipes and equipment after wastewater treatment processes, and sludge – the semi-solid by-product left behind after water has been treated. Struvite and sludge are problems for wastewater treatment facilities because they hamper the functioning of equipment, are costly to dispose of, and are hazardous to the environment. In fact, some municipalities spend tens of thousands of dollars per year simply to transport sludge for disposal. Professors Mavinic and Lo have developed solutions that not only address these problems, but offer valuable benefits to wastewater treatment operations.

To tackle sludge, Professor Lo has developed a microwave “sludge-busting” technology. The sludge is treated, in part, with microwave radiation that reduces the volume of solids by up to 80 per cent. The organic material in the sludge gets converted into fatty acids, which are digested by bacteria. The bacteria then emits methane gas, which wastewater treatment plants can capture to use as fuel for their operations. The sludge-busting technology works in tandem with Professor Mavinic’s phosphorus recovery process. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient – natural ecosystems cannot survive without it. But it’s dwindling in the natural environment, and Professor Mavinic’s technology allows for the recovery of the much-needed mineral, which is found in abundance in agricultural waste. Phosphorus can also be found in the form of the mineral struvite, which is a problem for wastewater treatment operations because it clogs pipes. The process for taking the problem of struvite and converting it into a phosphorus-rich high quality fertilizer has already been commercialized, and is sold as Crystal Green.

This innovation package has attracted the interest of local municipalities, agricultural organizations, and partners at UBC, who have agreed to provide funding for the systems to be expanded at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz, the Annacis Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the JAMES Wastewater Treatment Plant in Abbotsford. The professors hope to leverage that funding into an additional $500,000 from the federal government via NSERC. In total, they anticipate up to $3-million in funding over the next few years to scale up this important research, train highly qualified personnel, and prepare the technology to be implemented for regular use in wastewater treatment plants in BC and beyond.

The technology is also attracting attention worldwide. Professors Lo and Mavinic recently returned from a national speaking tour of New Zealand, focusing on this integrated, waste treatment approach for both domestic and dairy wastes. The tour was sponsored by Opus International, a New Zealand based consulting firm with a major office in Vancouver, and has resulted in substantial feedback and interest in establishing pilot plants in New Zealand.

Photo: Profs. Victor Lo and Don Mavinic at the JAMES Wastewater Treatment Plant in Abbotsford, BC, in front of shipping container which houses the MW-AOP system.

Read more about Professor Mavinic’s nutrient recovery technology here.

Read more about Professor Lo’s sludge-busting technology here.