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Scientists develop machine that transforms dirty water into drinkable supply

Testing has begun at UWE Bristol on a portable purification system that could bring clean drinking water to areas of the world without reliable access to a safe supply.

The mini mobile treatment plant developed by scientists at the university can purify hundreds of thousands of litres of water, potentially providing a solution for one billion people around the globe. 

Trials are being conducted at Frenchay campus for three months, ahead of deployment in India next year for further testing then use by communities. Initial tests have shown the system is capable of transforming dirty water drawn from a pond into clean water meeting UK drinking water standards at a rate of 500 litres per hour. 

Known as The Ninja, the 1.5m by 1.5m unit has the potential to quickly produce safe drinking water for decentralised communities, or those affected by humanitarian disasters. It uses an ultra-filtration system and electrochemically activated solutions that disinfectant raw water, removing biological contaminants including bacteria and viruses, as well as reducing agricultural and industrial contaminants such as nitrates, ammonia and metals. 

The system is the culmination of 10 years’ work, having started life as an academic research project in a small shed on campus affectionately named Stanley by researchers. It is part of UWE Bristol’s drive to make a difference on a global level with ground-breaking research. 

UWE Bristol has collaborated on the project with industrial partner Portsmouth Aqua Ltd, which designs and manufactures the treatment systems. 

The unit will be trialled in freshwater catchments in India as part of a UK Research and Innovation project. The project will also see UWE Bristol researchers testing the quality and health of the River Ganges using a novel V-Lux sensor developed through a partnership between UWE Bristol and Chelsea Technologies Ltd, over the past 10 years. The fluorescence sensor will monitor, in real time, the microbial activity of Indian freshwater sources to determine the dirtiness of the water that local communities rely upon. 

Professor Darren Reynolds, lead scientist on the project, said: “With this treatment technology, we’re trying, in some small way, to help solve a big problem – that in the 21st century many people all over the world lack access to basic clean drinking water. The Ninja is an industrial-scale piece of equipment which can be easily transported overseas and used to help whole communities by producing clean, safe drinking water from dirty or contaminated sources at the touch of a button. We can even develop the system to be powered from solar panels if needed. 

“Clean water should be available for everyone. Globally, at least two billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces resulting in millions of deaths, mostly in children. 

“Our system is capable of treating fresh water, from sources including boreholes, rivers, ponds and lakes, contaminated with bacteria and turning it into crystal clear drinking water. In three weeks on campus, we have produced 300,000 litres – enough to fill 900,000 small plastic bottles! 

“The implementation of the unit in India will allow us to further understand the operating challenges associated with this technology.” 

The three-year, £700,000 project is a collaboration with Professor Tapan Dutta from the Bose Institute in Kolkata. It comes as India faces increasing population pressures, particularly with exponential urbanisation and industrialisation, and environmental issues. The work forms part of the India-UK Water Quality Programme, which aims to provide policymakers, regulators, business and local communities with information and solutions that will help them secure the provision of clean water, rejuvenate rivers and restore ecosystems. 

Dr Bethany Fox, a Post-Doctoral Research Scientist working on the project in India, said: “We’re thrilled to be part of this prestigious international collaboration and excited to be deploying two state-of-the-art technologies that have been many years in the making at UWE Bristol. The partnership will involve the use of our UK developed technologies in India and the subsequent development of Indian inspired sensors and treatment approaches in the UK. 

“It is ultimately envisaged that the outcomes from the project will provide solutions to water quality issues to local authorities, policy makers, stakeholder and local communities. 

“The response from local communities in India so far to the testing has been positive – they’re really pleased we are out here making the effort to understand the quality of their water.” 

Author: Alec Peachey,
Topic: Drinking water quality , Innovation
Tags: treatment , water , drinking water quality

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