Our evolving relationship with Beijing OriginWater

When Beijing OriginWater Technology Co (B.O.W), one of the world’s biggest companies making membrane bioreactors to treat wastewater, wanted to partner with a research group to develop their technology further, they immediately looked to UNSW’s membrane experts at the UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology (CMST) in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Funded by B.O.W and supported by the new Torch Innovation Precinct at UNSW (an unprecedented $100 million innovation partnership with China that will deliver a major boost in research and development funding at UNSW), the project has its sights set firmly on not only helping B.O.W achieve commercial success but, ultimately, providing affordable clean water to the people of China.

“The project has three aims,” says Professor Greg Leslie from CMST. “We are working to develop new membrane materials for selective salt removal from water; new membrane module designs that use less energy and are less susceptible to clogging; and new approaches for the treatment and disposal of reject streams from membranes, including the recovery of valuable compounds from waste.”

According to Professor Leslie, UNSW’s links with B.O.W go back to the late 90s when their Chairman, Wen Jianping, and their Chief Scientist and Research Director of R&D, Dr Jing Guan, studied for their postgraduate degrees under Scientia Professor David Waite in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “B.O.W have also partnered with UNSW on three Australian Research Council’s linkage projects in the past, so they are fully aware of our strengths in the development and optimisation of membrane processes for water and wastewater treatment,” he says.

Professor Leslie is joined on the project by CMST membrane experts: Dr Yuan Wang, who is also the Project Manager for the UNSW Torch Innovation Precinct; and Professor Vicki Chen, Head of UNSW Chemical Engineering, who is leading the work on the development of new membrane materials. Scientia Professor David Waite of UNSW Civil and Environmental Engineering is leading work on the treatment and disposal of residual streams. 

Membrane processes like the ones we are developing will provide communities with options to treat their water and develop new sources of freshwater from unconventional water sources such as seawater, brackish groundwater and wastewater.

Professor Greg Leslie

Professor Chen is thrilled to be part of the evolving relationship with B.O.W. “Over time our work with B.O.W has moved from performance evaluation to product development; and we are now helping them design a new generation of membranes, as well as manage and recover resources from concentrates, and optimise the hydraulics of existing membrane systems,” she says.

Traditional wastewater treatment technologies use either sedimentation or sand filters, but these techniques require a huge space to operate so newer technologies such as B.O.W’s membrane bioreactor units have been developed as smaller and more efficient methods of wastewater processing.

B.O.W’s membranes are submerged in a tank about the size of a small room. The membranes close at one end, open at the other and a vacuum sucks the water through, the idea being that the waste and bacteria get caught by the membranes and the clean water goes straight through. B.O.W’s track record shows how successful the technology has been so far, but the company sees considerable scope for improvement.

In addition to completing her PhD in Environmental Engineering at UNSW, Dr Guan from B.O.W was also a former senior research fellow at UNSW’s Water Research Centre (WRC). She moved back to China a few years ago to take up her current role and says that with already more than 100 membrane patents and 1000 completed membrane projects that provide two billion tonnes of high-quality reclaimed water a year, B.O.W has set itself a boundless but very important task. “I get great job satisfaction working with such a strong R&D team in an area of significant global concern,” she says.

Creating clean water from contaminated water is about as noble a pursuit as it gets, and although B.O.W will benefit in a commercial sense, the real winners will be the people of China and, potentially, people all over the world.

Funded by B.O.W and supported by the new Torch Innovation Precinct at UNSW (an unprecedented $100 million innovation partnership with China that will deliver a major boost in research and development funding at UNSW

“Almost 1.5 billion people, globally, lack access to sanitation and 800 million people lack access to safe drinking water,” says Professor Leslie. “In addition, sources of fresh water are being depleted due to increased population. Membrane processes like the ones we are developing will provide communities with options to treat their water and develop new sources of freshwater from unconventional water sources such as seawater, brackish groundwater and wastewater.”

Torch Innovation Precinct fast facts

  • The Torch Innovation Precinct is a phased development over ten years with Phase One consisting of incubator space developed on the main UNSW Kensington Campus to bring together industry, SMEs, entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers from Australia, China and beyond.
  • Over A$30M has already been committed by ten Chinese companies to Phase One of the project.
  • A high-level MOU was signed between UNSW and the Torch High Technology Industry Development Centre, and witnessed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in Beijing in April 2016.
  • Deloitte Access Economics forecasts the initiative will return up to AU$1.1 billion to the Australian economy.
  • Since its inception in 1988, the ‘China Torch Program’ has created 146 high-tech zones and science parks across China in one of the world’s largest and most successful experiments in innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • The Torch network contributes to more than 11% of China’s GDP with its 50,000 companies in possession of an R&D budget exceeding AU$40 billion.
  • By joining this initiative, UNSW has exclusive access to these 50,000 companies creating an unrivalled platform to attract future R&D funding and research commercialisation opportunities.
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