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Making sewage water pristine

Concordia engineer invents device for waste-water treatment
May 15, 2012
By Laurence Miall

Take some raw sewage, send it through one cleaning device, and produce almost perfectly pristine water. Sounds too good to be true? A Concordia engineer has achieved just that.

Maria Elektorowicz from the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering  accomplished a feat that many scientists previously believed to be impossible. She created a hybrid device that can remove all impurities from sewage water.

Maria Elektorowicz is the graduate program director and a professor at the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering. | Photo by Pawel Pogorzelski
Maria Elektorowicz is the graduate program director and a professor at the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering. | Photo by Pawel Pogorzelski

Typically waste water has to pass through a series of treatment processes that are performed by different units. Thanks to Elektorowicz, for the first time, one device can perform all the required steps in purification.

“This invention offers an advanced treatment solution for stationary and mobile systems at lower cost,” says Elektorowicz. “It was tested in a real-world environment and so we’re very confident in its viability.”

The device she and her team developed, called a submerged membrane electro-bioreactor or SMEBR, was created at Concordia and tested in l'Assomption, Que. The SMEBR removes more impurities from water – and with greater efficiency – than many pre-existing devices. It is more environmentally sustainable since it eliminates the use of chemical compounds, occupies less land due to elimination of many operation units, and uses less energy, and so operates at a lower cost.

Elektorowicz presented her new method at the Salon des technologies environnementales du Québec last March. It has already drawn strong interest from industry looking to commercialize its use.

Recently, Le Devoir profiled Elektorowicz and her accomplishments. Born in Poland, she obtained her MEng and PhD degrees from Warsaw Technical University. She left Poland to teach Environmental Engineering at the University of Constantina in Algeria and eventually arrived in Canada in 1986, working first as a research associate at McGill before joining Concordia’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science in 1993.

“In my career I’ve been drawn to trying out things that have been considered impossible,” says Elektorowicz. “The SMEBR is the most recent example of that.”

Elektorowicz has many more innovative ideas about the future of waste-water treatment. She speculates about a future in which each home is self-sustaining in its water usage – being able to purify and re-use whatever it creates in the form of waste. She admits that one of the obstacles is psychological. Who would volunteer to drink water that came first from the sewer?

But the researcher believes we are approaching that possibility, and indeed, with half of the world’s population living in cities – some of them “mega cities” with enormous water demands – it’s time for some creative thinking. Rapid development in arid zones – in the Middle East, for example – presents another growing need for clean water that will require unique solutions.

“Classical water resources are not sufficient,” says Elektorowicz. “Non-drinking water should be produced on-site. We know it’s possible since already sewage water can readily be made suitable for household or industrial use.”

Participants in the project include Concordia students Shadi Hasan, Sharif Ibeid, Khalid Bani Melhem, Walaa Hirzallah and Negin Salamati, as well as professors Jan Oleszkiewicz and Victor Wei from University of Manitoba. The SMEBR project was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council's Strategic Grant Program.

Related links:

•    Maria Elektorowicz's faculty profile 
•    Le Devoir article about Elektorowicz and her work (in French)
•    Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering
•    Cited research 


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