CVEN’s evolving relationship with Beijing OriginWater

Supported by UNSW’s new Torch Innovation Precinct, the collaboration will bring much-needed affordable clean water to the Chinese

When Beijing OriginWater Technology Co (BOW), one of the world’s biggest companies making membrane bioreactors to treat wastewater, wanted to partner with a research group to develop the technology further, it looked to Professor David Waite and his Biogeochemical Engineering, Management and Systems (BioGEMS) team for assistance.

The resulting project is funded by BOW and supported by the new Torch Innovation Precinct at UNSW. Torch is an unprecedented $100 million innovation partnership with China that will deliver a major boost in research and development funding at UNSW.

The team has its sights on not only helping BOW achieve commercial success but, ultimately, provide affordable clean water to the Chinese people.

“I know OriginWater well because its Chairman, Wen Jianping, and its Chief Scientist and Research Director of R&D, Dr Jing Guan, did their postgraduate degrees here with me in the late ‘90s,” says Waite. “In fact, in 2010, we collaborated with them on a $1 million, three-year, Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project that looked at optimising the dosage of iron to remove phosphorous and reduce membrane fouling. It was very successful, with real advances in a range of areas relevant to BOW.”

Guan, who in addition to completing her PhD in Environmental Engineering at UNSW, was also a former senior research fellow at UNSW’s Centre for Water and Wastewater Technology in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CVEN). She moved back to China a few years ago to take up her current role.

Guan says that with already more than 100 membrane patents and 1000 completed membrane projects providing two billion tonnes of high-quality reclaimed water a year, BOW 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.

Waite’s BioGEMS group sits within the Water Research Centre in CVEN. He says that traditional wastewater treatment technologies use either sedimentation or sand filters, but these techniques require a huge space to operate. Newer technologies, such as BOW’s membrane bioreactor units, have been developed as smaller and more efficient methods of wastewater processing.

I get great job satisfaction working with such a strong R&D team in an area of significant global concern

Dr Jing Guan, Chief Scientist, Beijing OriginWater

“BOW’s membranes are submerged in a tank about the size of a small room,” Waite says. “The membranes close at one end, open at the other and a vacuum sucks the water through them – the idea being that the waste and bacteria get caught by the membranes and the clean water goes straight through.

“BOW’s track record shows how successful the technology has been, but the company sees considerable scope for improvement so have funded us to continue to innovate with them.”

One idea the company wants to pursue is a direct follow-on from the previous ARC project. “The Linkage Project resulted in some great fundamental research, but now BOW has said: ‘That’s great, but we want to use this commercially, so how do we take it through to application?’” Waite says.

“They also want us to help create another step in the process to further degrade the problematic organic compounds that are able to go through the membranes using a suite of new technologies centred around what are known as advanced oxidation processes.”

Creating clean water from contaminated water is about as noble a pursuit as it gets, and Waite says that although BOW will benefit in a commercial sense, the real winners will be the Chinese people. It also has the potential to help people all over the world treat their water cheaply and effectively using this technology.

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