Sunday, April 14, 2019

University Students Build (what could be) the Key to Ensuring Clean Water Supply

Take a glass. Turn on the tap. There it is: safe, clean drinking water right at your disposal. It travels through thousands of kilometers of watermains, tens of thousands of valves, multiple storage tanks, reservoirs, pumping stations and treatment plants to end up in your kitchen sinks.


In general, treatment plants consist of six steps, the first being a raw water settling pond, where water sits until debris naturally settles out before being pumped upwards for further treatment. This is particularly useful as a backup reserve in the case of a large irregularity in water accessibility (e.g. oil spill or algal bloom).

The remaining five steps occur hundreds of feet above the settling pond:
  1. Chemical coagulation: naturally occurring organic matter is first broken down using an oxidant. The fluid is then rapidly mixed with a coagulate (which causes fine particles to clump together).
  2. Flocculation: coagulated particles are slowly stirred to form floc. The increase in collisions from the mechanical energy applied promotes contact between the floc particles and the particulates in the water. This consequently forms larger particles which make for easier removal in the following stages.
  3. Sedimentation: the velocity of flow is reduced so gravity can remove denser particulates.
  4. Disinfection: chlorine is added to kill potentially disease-carrying microorganisms and;
  5. Filtration: Fluid is finally passed through a granular substance to remove any remaining impurities.
The general water treatment plant is not equipped to efficiently remove rapid accumulation of algae in the case of an algal bloom. These blooms are caused by toxic cyanobacteria which is not only lethal to humans but also to aquatic life, costing billions in government funded supplementary water treatment and in revenue for fishing and tourism industries.

Currently, algae is detected by collecting water samples sent to certified research labs where experts view the sample under a microscope and manually count the different organisms to identify the cyanobacteria. This process takes weeks and, in some cases, even months - making active monitoring and predicting harmful blooms next to impossible.

A group called Blue Lion Labs (formerly SIM Labs) is proposing a solution that allows for key stakeholders be proactive at the onset of a bloom with their goal of detecting the bacteria within minutes. It is founded by Jason Degelint, a Systems Design Ph.D student along with Dr. Chao Jin and Dr. Alexander Wong; research professors specializing in water technologies and artificial intelligence respectively at the University of Waterloo.

The Blue Lions Labs team aims to achieve automated monitoring and prediction of blooms by leveraging machine learning and Spectral Integration Microscopy (SIM) to identify six different types of algae. They have essentially created a portable water monitoring system which allows for larger datasets to be analyzed on-site for significantly lower costs. The data collected can help better understand cyanobacteria behaviour and can ultimately lead to bloom predictions before they occur. They have received significant funding and successfully built a prototype of their custom microscope system, with Degelint stating in a May 2018 interview that their next step was to test the computer against human experts in the lab.

Dive deeper into the inner workings of their water monitoring system HERE.

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