Canadian researchers purify water with bacteria

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have invented a system that uses bacteria to turn non-potable water into drinking water. The goal is to install the system in remote communities in Canada and beyond.

The system consists of tanks of fibre membranes that catch and hold contaminants – dirt, organic particles, bacteria and viruses – while letting water filter through. A community of beneficial bacteria, or biofilm, functions as the second line of defence, working in concert to break down pollutants.

“Membrane treatment can remove over 99.99 per cent of contaminants, making them ideal for making drinking water,” said project lead Pierre Bérubé, a UBC civil engineering professor.

According to Bérubé, membrane water treatment is not new, but the modifications developed by his team produce an even more effective solution.

“Our system is the first to use gravity to scour and remove captured contaminants, which otherwise accumulate and clog the membrane. It’s low-maintenance and as efficient as conventional approaches that need chemicals and complex mechanical systems to keep the membranes clean,” said Bérubé.

The biofilm helps by eating away at the captured contaminates. “You just open and close a few valves every 24 hours in order to ‘lift’ the water and let gravity and biology do their thing. This means significant savings in time and money over the lifetime of the system.”

The researchers will test their system at a pilot site in West Vancouver, close to the university. But their goal is to install systems for remote communities in Canada and beyond where clean drinking water is hard to come by.

“Access to clean drinking water is a constant challenge for millions of people around the world,” said Bérubé. “Our goal is to provide a model for low-cost, effective water treatment for communities, and to help locals help themselves as they build, operate and even expand their water treatment plants.”

Image credit: Clare Kiernan, University of British Columbia

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