Water treatment technology research receives innovation competition funding

River Lune with brown coloured water © Professor Barbara Maher
River Lune with brown coloured water

A Lancaster University-led research project developing new technologies to remove dissolved carbon from drinking water has won backing from a national Ofwat innovation competition.

The research team, based at Lancaster University and the University of Bristol, has been awarded £450,000 from the Ofwat Water Discovery Challenge to develop technologies that use novel magnetic nanomaterials and processes to help clean UK drinking water.

Much of the UK’s drinking water comes from rain falling on peaty hills, which then collects in rivers and reservoirs. Water running off these peaty uplands is often a brown whiskey colour due to the presence of dissolved organic carbon from the peat.

When chlorine is added to disinfect the water, to make it safe to drink, the chlorine can react with the dissolved organic carbon. This produces dangerous, cancer-causing compounds.

This problem is increasing steeply as a result of climate change, with increased temperatures and winter rainfall causing more dissolution and run-off of organic carbon into water courses.

As a result, the cost of treating the water using current methods is rising, which not only risks seeing consumers’ water bills rise, but could also threaten the supply of water at certain times of the year.

The researchers’ technology aims to remove more than 90 per cent of the dissolved organic compound from even the most polluted of waters, compared with around 70% removal using current methods.

“Our new technology uses novel magnetic materials combined with continuous mixing and flow processes to remove most of the organic carbon and can be re-used time and time again, forming an effective and energy- and cost-saving treatment,” said Professor Barbara Maher, of Lancaster Environment Centre and one of the project’s lead researchers.

“We’ve successfully tested our magnetic materials on a range of UK waters. With this new award from Ofwat, we aim to develop a demonstration-scale prototype to show the water companies how effective our solution is, within an actual water treatment works. It’s a very exciting opportunity to make a big impact on the UK water industry,” she said.

Dr Farid Aiouache, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, and co-lead investigator said: “Our solution is designed to out-perform the current industry methods. It will provide savings throughout the whole life-cycle of water treatment by reducing the overheads associated with the current solution. In addition, the technology we are developing has been designed to ensure it can be cost-effectively retro-fitted into existing water treatment works, as well as installed in new-build facilities.”

The research team also includes Dr James Byrne, at the University of Bristol, and Dr Alan Gilchrist, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Lancaster University Management School who will provide market analysis and business development expertise to the project.

The project is one of ten winners sharing £4.5 million of funding by Ofwat, the economic regulator for the water sector, through its Water Discovery Challenge. The Challenge aims to accelerate the development and adoption of promising new innovations for the water sector.

The competition is part of the Ofwat Innovation Fund, run by Ofwat with Challenge Works, Arup and Isle Utilities.

Over the next six months, winners will also receive non-financial support to further the development of their solutions such as mentoring, along with a final showcase event that will allow them to pitch their projects to potential water company partners and/or investors.

Helen Campbell, Senior Director for Sector Performance at Ofwat said: “This competition was about reaching new innovators from outside the sector with different approaches and new ideas, and that’s exactly what the winners announced today are doing. The products and ideas recognised in this cross-sector challenge will equip water companies to better face challenges of the future – including achieving sustainability goals and meeting net zero targets – all while providing the highest-quality product for consumers.”

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