THE WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT
Our team had the opportunity of receiving a tour of the Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lethbridge. This plant was built in the early 1900s and it is a biological nutrient facility, which makes it belong to the top five percent of all the treatment plants in the world. The plant removes phosphorus, nitrogen, ammonia, total suspended solids, biochemical oxygen demand (pollution), as well as works to reduces fecal and total coliform. The wastewater treatment plant is licensed under the Alberta Government which ensures that certain rules and obligations must be met. Our team had a tour of the plant led by Duane Guzzi, the Process Coordinator of the wastewater treatment plant. During the tour we learned valuable information that would help us for the success of our project. As our project deals with the extraction of metals from tailings ponds, going to a wastewater treatment plant was beneficial as we learned the procedures and methods they take to remove chemicals from water and make it safe for rivers.
The Wastewater Treatment Plant is licensed under the Alberta Government, which ensures that certain rules and obligations must be met. During the tour, we learned about the procedures and methods that are taken to remove chemicals from water and make it safe for release. Surprisingly, we discovered a few similarities between our system and the plant’s operations. The plant processes bacteria in order for it to form into flocks and create a netting; then, it sinks to the bottom of the tank and is subsequently able to be removed easily.
Our project is very similar to this process, as we use phages that have inducible precipitation, to allow for easy removal after metal ion capture. This tour also provided us with valuable knowledge on how we can integrate our system into the plant. Mr. Guzzi told us that our project could be integrated into the secondary clarifiers, to remove the metals that are contained within the wastewater. If our project was integrated into the secondary clarifiers, the metals that are contained in the wastewater could be removed before moving on to ultraviolet disinfection, where the microorganisms that are left in the water are disrupted and unable to reproduce and cause harm. This final product that is produced would then be able to be discharged into the environment.
Lastly, the plant focuses on the environment in the procedures they carry out, as wastes such as methane that is produced from the plant will be transported to co-generation motors where it will then provide heat and electricity for the plant. This ensures that the Wastewater Treatment Plant’s energy costs are low. This inspired us to turn our attention to the potential impacts our project could have on the environment -- how our project could be used to improve the efficiency of metal removal from wastewater, and how this could impact the dependent ecosystem as a result.
We interviewed Dorothy Lok, who is a Municipal Approvals Engineer at Alberta Environment and Parks to explore the possibility of implementing our system into the Lethbridge Wastewater Treatment plant. Upon interviewing her, we learned that though our system is innovative, it would be unnecessary to implement it into the Lethbridge Wastewater Treatment plant as there is not a high concentration of metal ions in the wastewater. She also mentioned that the wastewater treatment plant already uses the metal-laden sludge produced as fertilizers for various crops. However, Dorothy Lok did propose that we should look into applying our system in other wastewater treatment plants of specific cities such as Flint, Michigan or industrial wastewater treatments plants, as these facilities contain a higher concentration of metal ions. In addition, she also suggested that the issue of mining and oil tailings ponds is a problem we could potentially tackle as tailings ponds contain a high concentration of metal ions that are detrimental to the environment. This would be more efficient for our system as the concentration of metal ions would be higher and therefore there would be more metal ions to remove. In terms of our system, Ms Lok told us, “You would really have to have a purpose for doing it [implementing our system in the wastewater treatment process]… whereas with tailings ponds, they need to be dealt with.” As a result of her advice, we pivoted our project goal to focus on the removal of metal ions from mining and oil tailings ponds rather than wastewater treatments plants. The successful implementation of our project could benefit communities locally and globally!
Senior Tailings Engineer for Alberta Energy Regulator
As mentioned, the environmental concern that tailings ponds cause is a crucial issue that many places around the world face, specifically Alberta. While our provincial economy relies heavily on the oil and gas industry, and we are very fortunate to have such natural resources at our disposal, these tailings must be monitored and dealt with cautiously. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) ensures the safe, efficient, orderly, and environmentally responsible development of oil, oil sands, natural gas, and coal resources over their entire life cycle. They aim to ensure the reclamation of tailings ponds and speaking with them helped us gain insight on many different aspects of our project. We organized an interview with a Senior Tailings Engineer from Alberta Energy Regulator, and told him about our project and goals. A large concern for our project was using synthetic biology in an environment that is exposed to natural conditions; however, when discussing the issue of biocontainment with the AER representative, he advised us that biocontainment was not an issue whatsoever. This is due to the fact that tailings ponds do not support many living organisms aside from bacteria because they are so toxic (tailings ponds are relatively isolated environments). We also discussed and gained knowledge of the magnitude of tailings ponds, and were informed that they will continue to grow and must be taken care of. This interview helped us to confirm that our system would be very useful due to the fact that there is currently no concrete solution. The representative voiced his concern about the magnitude of tailings ponds, and the impact that our system could have on such a large volume. We aim to resolve this concern using mathematical modelling until further experiments can be conducted. Our interview with the AER representative allowed us to verify that our project would be highly innovative and beneficial to both our economy and environment.
In order to address our questions of biosecurity and feasibility, we had an interview with a biology professor at the University of Lethbridge, Dr Stewart Rood. We were told that our project required improvement in the applied design; tailings ponds are massive, and it would be very difficult to extract enough metals from them to make a profit. “My biggest problem with the system is scale,” informed Dr. Rood. As a result, in the final few weeks before the giant Jamboree, we researched other potential real-world applications of our system, in order to discover what it could be most effectively used for. We realized that although our system would not be extremely helpful in remediating tailings ponds samples, it would be beneficial to extract metals for profit from them -- but particularly in mining tailings. Moreover, we re-acknowledged the use of our system in wastewater treatment plants; although Lethbridge’s wastewater treatment plant would not require our system based on our tour, physical wastewater treatment plants used to clean the wastewater from industries discard large amounts of metals. Our system would definitely be purposeful there, in addition to places with metal contaminated water, such as Flint, Michigan. This demonstrates the improved knowledge we gained on the application of our project as a result of the advice given from Professor Rood.