Page 78 - UCT Research Report 2011

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UCT Research Report '11
The amount of water on the Earth has
remained constant for more than two
billion years. Pour a glass of Adam’s ale at
your local pub and it is likely that you are
consuming particles that have been around
since the first life forms.
This cyclic process of our most precious natural resource
means that it is vital for us to conserve, preserve and
respect our water. After all, would we want our thirsty
great-great-grandchildren to be taking in the chemicals,
medical residues, and pollutants of today?
With this in mind, water-conscious Capetonians had much
to smile about with the release of Water Minister Edna
Molewa’s Blue Drop report – an annual national assessment
of drinking water quality. After an exhaustive 2011 audit of
153 municipalities and nearly all of the country’s 931 water
plants, the Western Cape ranked as the second-highest
performing province in the country. At a metropolitan level,
the City of Cape Town retained its Blue Drop status, scoring
98,14 percent. Blue Drop status – the highest category of
purity – is awarded only to those municipalities scoring
more than 95 percent in the purity audit.
And now, a group of researchers at UCT is working
overtime to preserve this status in future, combining
conservation, awareness and technological development
to maintain Blue Drop status and combat water scarcity.
Waste not, want not
Water research at UCT is a multi-disciplinary endeavour,
drawing in some of the highest-ranked academics, many
of whom have inspired keen postgraduate students to join
them in working towards local water management solutions.
One such academic is internationally renowned expert
in wastewater management and NRF A-rated scholar
Professor George Ekama, who heads up the Water
Research Group – a collection of researchers and
academics housed in the Department of Civil Engineering.
With more than 30 years’ experience in wastewater
management, he has been at the forefront of a multitude
of water-related developments, but it is his work in
biological nutrient reduction research, system modelling,
and optimisation that is currently making news.
Working in close collaboration with faculty members and
postgraduate students, such as Dr David Ikumi (PhD
2011) and Theo Harding (MSc 2009), Professor Ekama
has been developing computer program models that can
simulate the entirety of the wastewater treatment plant. Not
only are these models fully customisable, with the flexibility
to be adapted to any treatment plant with variable data
input, they also allow for several groundbreaking – and
meaningful – adaptations to data calculations based on
current treatment modelling.
Previous models relied on data prediction that dealt only
with individual system components, making the process
of gathering a full system report both time-consuming
and, often, inaccurate. With Professor Ekama’s holistic
model, however, engineers are given the ability to estimate
accurately the necessary oxygen resources, electricity
requirements, and the amount of sludge by-product
produced with one integrated system. With the entire
wastewater treatment process optimised, energy usage is
minimised, water is purified and valuable phosphorus can
be gathered, measured, and harvested.
Escalating food prices can often be attributed to the
scarcity of phosphorus, one of the most important minerals
to be found in fertilisers and the subject of another of
the research group’s innovative projects. Since urine
contains 50 percent of the total phosphorus content of our
wastewater, the group is undertaking feasibility studies
into how this mineral can be extracted from the wastewater
system, with particular emphasis on doing so biologically,
instead of chemically.
Professor Ekama proposes a dual distributive system,
where fresh water is channelled into the city via traditional
steel pipes and, in parallel, seawater is carried in plastic
pipes (to negate the effects of rust). The pure water
would be pumped to taps and the salinated water would
be reserved for sanitary systems such as flushing toilets.
In conjunction with the possibility of designing
compartmentalised toilet systems that separate urine
UCT researchers combine to
protect one of South Africa’s most
valuable resources:
“Water research at UCT is a multi-
discipl inary endeavour, drawing
in some of the highest-ranked