Wastewater treatment inspired by nature

Monash Chemical Engineering students have developed  a sustainable, stand-alone water treatment system that removes organic pollutants from industrial wastewater.

The Stand Alone Sunflow system (SASS), developed by PhD students Mostafa Dehghani and Mahdi Naseri and undergraduate student Clare Carew, replicates the natural water treatment cycle by taking advantage of sunlight.

The students hope it will help curb the global impact of industrial wastewater.

Untreated wastewater from industrial sites can contain heavy metals, toxins and petroleum hydrocarbons which can have direct implications on aquatic ecosystems and subsequently impact food resources and water supply.

“According to recent figures from the United Nations, by 2030, half of the world, including many in low resource areas, will face water scarcity,” Dehghani said.

“This was our main motivation to design a water treatment system inspired by nature, that takes advantage of sunlight, especially in areas with a high light intensity like Australia.

“The available systems currently in the market are either inefficient or produce a secondary pollutant that needs to be disposed of in the environment. Our prototype seeks to provide a sustainable treatment of persistent organic pollutants such as fluorinated compounds.”

The SASS design avoids using fossil fuel-based energy sources or chemicals that pose a hazard to human or environmental health. It uses a cellulose/zinc oxide catalyst activated by sunlight to break down organic pollutants in water circulated through a treatment tank.

Mounted UV lights powered by solar panels are activated when insufficient sunlight is available, while a micro controller manages the flow of water through the system. At the end of the treatment cycle, clean water is discharged from the system.

“The efficacy of the system was examined using a variety of organic pollutants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), dioxane solvents, industrial dyes, and real wastewater samples, until degradation to below health and environmental advised levels were achieved,” said Naseri.

Currently there is a lack of sustainable and economical methods to treat persistent organic pollutants, especially for low resource settings. The materials used in the SASS design are from abundant and affordable sources, making it a much more affordable alternative.

The students hope that with further advancements and research, the SASS technology will  be able to be scaled up to treat larger water streams.

The SASS design was recently recognised by the James Dyson Foundation, which provides materials and mentorship for budding inventors.

The students are looking for funding to improve the design and implement purpose-built microcontrollers to manage various sensors and control the flow of contaminated and treated water.

Once finalised, the intention is to work with targeted industries such as breweries, textile, food and beverage, and printing companies to apply the SASS technology into their commercialisation processes.

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