New technologies specifically designed for regional and remote water supply systems are necessary to drive viable advanced water treatment solutions.
Regional and remote communities are experiencing significant and ongoing issues to source adequate drinking water. Water quality challenges are becoming increasingly complex to address and they are at the forefront of service providers and water utilities.
As outlined in this case study, the development of new technologies specifically designed for regional and remote water supply systems are necessary to drive viable advanced water treatment solutions that can overcome the challenges faced by those communities in an economically sustainable way.
But to develop new technologies, it is necessary to facilitate the creation of a new technological model based on building collaborative private-public partnerships and to establish experimental sites (pilot projects) on water utilities’ operational locations to deploy and test prototypes in real world conditions. This will support practical research and the development of water technologies suitable for remote settings.
Innovative designs and new financing approaches driven by private-public partnerships combined with real world testing and monitoring in the early stage of the technology development will lead to the development of better infrastructure solutions that are designed and build for the challenges and operational conditions of the regional and remote systems.
This case study aims to highlight a unique and novel partnership model between two water utilities, a university and the private sector outside of the conventional research grant stream in order to invest in a new technology to address ongoing water quality and operations issues.
Water supply systems in Aboriginal and remote communities are relatively simple, often providing only basic disinfection; biological and mineral impurities with potential health impacts remain untreated.
When water treatment systems are used in those communities, they generally rely on conventional and advanced water supply systems that been developed for large cities.
These “high density urban” systems are not economically viable for replication across Australia’s hundreds of remote communities and small regional centres. They have very high capital and operating costs, require a regular supply of various chemicals and daily intervention by experienced and well-trained operators.
Power and Water Corporation (operating in the Northern Territory) and Water Corporation (operating in Western Australia) are both major water utilities (government owned corporations) and provide water and wastewater services throughout their respective jurisdiction.
Both water utilities operate a large number of small water supply schemes for Aboriginal communities across vast and very isolated regions. Both water utilities face similar challenges in terms of maintaining and improving essential services in remote communities.
Extreme remoteness, high costs of transportation, challenging logistics associated with materials, chemicals and equipment, lack of trained and qualified personnel, delayed emergency response and infrequent preventative maintenance are a few of the issues faced by both water utilities.
Issues and needs
A number of Aboriginal communities and remote centres, relying on groundwater, are known to have levels of chemical contaminants such as nitrates and heavy metals (e.g., Uranium, Arsenic, Antimony, Barium) in their water supply. Whilst these contaminants can occur naturally, they are proven to have an impact on human health in the long-term and raise consumer concern.
Whilst several conventional water treatment technologies have the capability to remove nitrate and heavy metals from contaminated groundwater to a certain extent, they suffer limitations of low efficiency (recovery rates), high operational costs and significant waste streams, restricting their practical application in remote communities.
Therefore, the development of new technologies for the removal of nitrate and heavy metals applicable in remote communities is required to safeguard public health and to anticipate any change of health-based guideline values.
While several conventional water treatment technologies have the capability to remove nitrate and heavy metals from contaminated groundwater to a certain extent, they have limitations including low efficiency (recovery rates), high operational costs and significant waste streams, which restrict their practical application in remote communities.
Research partnership arrangement
In July 2021, Power and Water Corporation, the Northern Territory Government (through Essential Indigenous Services), Water Corporation, The University of Queensland, Hydro-dis Australia and Dematec Automation joined forces by signing a collaborative research agreement to undertake research and development project.
The research focuses on the treatment of nitrate and heavy metals such as uranium and arsenic by applying electro-chemical technology using oxidation and reduction reactions.
The proposed approach is based on the existing technological development of continuous electro chlorination made by Water Corporation and Hydro-dis Australia under a separate R&D project.
The total project value is $2.76 million and will run for three years.
Two pilot systems will run at operational sites in the NT and WA to test and improve the process in real field conditions while monitoring and optimising performance.
Two PhD students have been engaged as part of a scholarship to conduct fundamental engineering and scientific research of the technology during the three-year project.
The research project aims to develop a viable water treatment solution to:
- reduce nitrate and heavy metal concentration exceedances in drinking water supply systems;
- be specifically designed and tested for remote communities;
- provide lower operating costs, simpler operation and lower maintenance requirements compared to conventional technologies (e.g., Reverse Osmosis, Ion Exchange) due to the reduced need for consumables and lower complexity of the electrochemical system; and
- deal effectively with the challenges and operational conditions associated with remote sites.
Status and outcomes
Since the inception of the project in 2021, the project team has been working on laboratory experiments to test the proposed new technology. The lab experiments validated the process and confirmed its suitability to remove nitrate and heavy metals.
The project team is now designing the first prototype which will be deployed in an operational in the Northern Territory.
Links and publications
Australian Water Association: https://www.awa.asn.au/resources/latest-news/new-research-explores-water-demands-for-hydrogen-production-0
Water Services Association of Australia: Power and Water and Water Corp form unique partnership – Water360
Photo 1: Laboratory set-up
Photo 2: the project team
This case study was written by Eric Vanweydeveld with the approval of the project partners representatives: Wayne Sharp (Power and Water Corporation), Luke Zappia (Water Corporation), Professor Jurg Keller and Research Fellow Pablo Ledezma (The University of Queensland), Rob Richardson (Hydro-dis Australia) and David Hart (Dematec Automation).