Resilience Reflections #2: Combining science domains for clean water

 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
Recognising the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change, resilience is one of the University of Twente’s spearheads. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. In this weekly series, UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. In this second issue,  Rob Lammertink talks about the raised concerns about our drinking water.

Trusting that there will always be sufficient clean drinking water in a water-abundant country like the Netherlands has unfortunately become less obvious over the last few years. Scientists and public water experts have raised the alarm on this issue, and recently the Dutch parliament has raised serious concerns about the quality of our precious water resources.

At the University of Twente, I am research-wise interested in membrane separation processes, where the membrane retains some compounds, while others pass through. These processes are increasingly applied in the separation and purification of very diverse water streams and are in many cases energy efficient compared to conventional alternatives. Most notably, the purification of water is increasingly relying on membrane separation technologies, including desalination for drinking water production, purification of water (removal of bacteria and viruses), and wastewater treatment.

In many of these technologies, membrane separation is enhanced with an additional treatment process, for instance, biological treatment. This requires expertise from different scientific domains during the design process and operations. Combining science in this way is currently explored for removal of micropollutants such as drug residues, pesticides and PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) for which there is growing concern.

Challenges and Interdisciplinary Approaches

Linking two exact sciences to develop solutions forms an interesting challenge. Both biological treatment as well as the physical separation process react to changes in process conditions, and their interplay can result in interesting behaviour.  When a membrane retains one component, this component will accumulate, which in turn can trigger changes within the biological process. For example, the bacteria might improve its ability to degrade the component. This illustrates that the coupling of scientific disciplines brings compelling challenges to the table as well as potential solutions that strengthen resilience!

Science is increasingly concerned with strengthening the resilience of the social, economic and ecological systems that support us. It refers to our ability to respond to and manage sudden disruptions such as torrential rainfall, as well as gradual disruptions like water scarcity and pollution. Resilience requires that we see problems from several angles, and that we combine scientific domains and expertise in order to develop effective solutions for the grand challenges we face.

Rob Lammertink is a Full Professor in the Faculty of Science and Technology (TNW) at the University of Twente. 

Find more information about the Resilience @ UT programme  . 

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