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Thirst for Progress

UMass Takes Leadership Role in Clean-water Innovation

David Reckhow

David Reckhow says state and federal investments in his department’s work may lead to breakthroughs in the way water is treated worldwide.

David Reckhow says water treatment is ripe for innovation.

“We’re working with technologies that are about a century old. We haven’t really advanced all that much over the past 100 years,” said the professor in UMass Amherst’s College of Engineering. “Think about biotechnology or information technology, and all the advances that have been made over the past century. Now imagine what our lives would be like if we had 100-year-old information technology.”

But that’s what water-treatment workers must deal with. Admittedly, one reason is that the processes in use have worked remarkably well at keeping people safe.

“Most of the water treatment being done in this country uses what we call conventional technology, which is fairly simple,” he told BusinessWest. “It involves simply adding a coagulant to untreated water, which allows particles to settle. We send the particulates through a filter, add chlorine as a disinfectant, and we’re done. That technology was developed around the turn of last century, and it’s been in use for 100 years. And it’s been great, because it’s controlled cholera and protected us from other waterborne diseases.”

However, other problems have emerged over time, such as a possible link between long-term chlorine exposure and increased risk of bladder cancer. “It tends to result in elevated levels of some carcinogenic compounds and can cause chronic diseases,” Reckhow said. “So, we’ve solved some acute-disease problems, but now we have some chronic-disease problems.”

That’s one example of why Reckhow’s leadership of the Environmental Engineering and Wastewater Resources Group, a division of the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is so important.

“We’ve been doing research on water for the 29 years I’ve been here,” he said. “We have a very active group — one of the leading groups in the country in this field — but we’ve been a well-kept secret. Not many people outside the field know about what we’re doing. But when something like this happens, people take notice.”

‘This’ refers to a $4.1 million grant Reckhow recently garnered from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which will fund a national center for drinking-water innovation on the Amherst campus. That comes on the heels of Gov. Deval Patrick’s recent signing of a water-infrastructure bill earmarking $1.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for water innovation.

The federally funded center will be one of two national research centers — the other is in Boulder, Colo. — focused on testing and demonstrating cutting-edge technologies for drinking-water systems. The Patrick administration, through the Mass. Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), supplemented the federal investment with a $100,000 grant for other water-innovation projects on campus.

In short, UMass is tapping into significant state and federal resources to move water research and treatment well forward into the 21st century — a time when rising global population and other factors threaten to make drinkable water the pressing issue across the planet.

Particle Man

In a tour of his department’s laboratories, Reckhow showed BusinessWest several high-tech pieces of equipment, including a $650,000 Xevo liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer manufactured by Waters Corp. in Milford, and used to identify the type and amount of chemicals present in a water sample.

“We got a grant for $700,000 to buy this thing, and we’re getting it up and running; we’re just about there,” he said. “We’ve been slowly outfitting the lab, so we probably have the best water-engineering testing laboratory in the country.”

The $4.1 million EPA grant will expand this work, funding the creation of the WINSSS, or Water Innovation Network for Small Sustainable Systems. The EPA intends to use this center and the one in Colorado to test and refine emerging water technologies for the betterment of the water utilities across the country.

“The EPA center is charged with developing technologies that are most appropriate for all drinking-water systems,” Reckhow said, adding that the work will be aimed at improving small treatment systems, which typically don’t have the resources of larger systems to solve their own problems. In addition, 97% of drinking-water systems in the U.S. are considered small.

engineering labs at UMass

The $4.1 million EPA center will be built near the engineering labs at UMass (pictured), where the Environmental Engineering and Wastewater Resources Group conducts its research.

“It’s really challenging — they’re just overwhelmed,” he added. “Often, very small operations in small communities don’t have the budget to hire people focused only on water. What they really need is help in having access to technologies that are inexpensive, that are green, that don’t require a lot of energy, don’t require a lot of attention and maintenance. These are some of the characteristics we look for; even big utilities would like that. Our task is to develop these technologies to the point where we can hand them of to another entity to carry them to the market.”

That could be one role for the New England Water Innovation Network (NEWIN), which has been working with UMass on ways to move early innovations into pilot tests and into use by the public and private sectors. Having traveled with Patrick to Israel and Singapore to see model water-innovation networks first-hand, Reckhow wants to help the campus create similar infrastructure for Massachusetts.

He noted that the industry faces a barrage of challenges, from the regulatory environment and increasing competition for water supplies to contamination and climate change. So they want to develop partnerships designed to foster a constant back-and-forth between innovators, researchers and end users.

One ongoing area of research involves ferrate, a compound produced by mixing iron salt with chlorine before it is used to treat water. The process eliminates much of the chlorine and has proven comparable to chlorine as a disinfectant, without the side effects.

“Ferrate may help us back off the chlorine a little bit and reduce the concentration of some of the carcinogenic byproducts we get,” Reckhow said. “It’s a green chemical because it doesn’t use chlorine, and we make it on site; there are various ways of making it.”

That’s only one of many promising efforts, however. “Before we received the grant, we identified 16 projects representing different technologies we’re going to work with,” he told BusinessWest. “The technologies we’re developing will ultimately help to alleviate some of those problems, especially if we can come up with better ways of taking used water to make it reusable.”

Singapore, for instance, is one country which has instituted water reuse. “Singapore has to do it because it’s a small land mass, and they’re at the mercy of their neighbors to get supplemental water beyond what falls as rain on that small country,” he said. “They have been forced to deal with this issue, but we think there are better ways to do this.”

As the governor noted at the press conference announcing the grant, “all over the world and right here at home in the Commonwealth, water challenges are threatening the environment and the economy. Investing in the development of water-innovation technologies not only protects precious natural resources and public health, but creates high-quality local jobs.”

Trial and Error

Among the projects UMass and NEWIN are collaborating on is the development of physical facilities for entrepreneurs in water-testing technology. One of those is a university-owned parcel of land adjacent to the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant, where UMass had built a wastewater pilot testing plant during the 1970s.

“It’s old and outmoded and not used, but we’re trying to get money from the state to rebuild it, so it’s a facility that can be used by companies making water-technology devices — startups or established companies or, for that matter, someone who just has a really good idea,” he explained.

“This is perceived as a real need in the industry, holding Massachusetts — and the whole country, in some respects — back a little bit: the lack of existing facilities. It’s expensive to do this. We have an earmark in the environmental bond bill to rebuild this pilot plant so it could be made available to anyone in the community — in reality, anyone in the country.”

WINSSS will focus on bringing early innovations to where they can be pilot-tested, an initiative that could spur the economy, Reckhow said, considering that the global water industry is estimated to generate as much as $600 billion annually. With about 300 institutions in Massachusetts involved in water technology, NEWIN was formed to connect these players and help convert their ideas into workable products.

“The EPA center will be focused on early-stage development of technology, and the mandate is to work on technologies that are most appropriate for small drinking-water systems,” he said, adding that those technologies often carry over into larger systems, particularly wastewater. Meanwhile, the restored testing plant will focus primarily on small to medium-sized wastewater systems, generally later-state development. “Together, they mesh nicely.”

He noted that the MassCEC grant will pay for a mobile pilot unit — a 35-foot trailer fitted with high-tech equipment — that will bridge that gap between early-stage and late-stage innovation and allow UMass to test treatment devices on site in the Commonwealth and beyond. Meanwhile, a recent grant from the National Science Foundation has helped fund the latest, most sensitive equipment for measuring contaminants in drinking water and wastewater.

It’s an issue of particular concern in areas like Cape Cod, which has been dealing with a growing problem of contaminants leaching from wastewater to groundwater to residential wells — just one of the public-health concerns being monitored in Reckhow’s laboratories.

“Providing safe, clean drinking water is critical for maintaining the health and security of the Commonwealth,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. “Researchers here at UMass Amherst are on the front lines of efforts to make sure that clean water is a reality for all our communities and citizens.”

Global Resolve

Reckhow and Patrick have been involved with the Massachusetts-Israel Innovation Partnership (MIIP), launched in 2011 after the governor participated in a trade mission to Israel. During that 10-day mission, a coalition of the state’s leading business executives and senior government officials explored growth opportunities of common interest for Massachusetts’ and Israel’s innovation industries.

One of those interests was safe water — and concern over this issue is only expected to increase in the coming decades.

“They talk about water being the next oil,” Reckhow said. “We’re running out of quality water. There’s plenty of water on the planet, but most of it is not usable; the water in the ocean is not usable, or, at least, it’s very expensive to use. So, as we move forward, there’s going to be more conflict over existing high-quality water sources. We have seen it in the Middle East for a long time, but it’s going to be more widespread.

“It’s an issue of national security around the world,” he added. “Israel has made some good strides. And we’re addressing some of these issues here in Massachusetts.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]