A Portable Wastewater Plant that Generates Clean Water from Apartment Sewage

Achievement date: 
2017
Outcome/accomplishment: 

Researchers have refined a portable, commercial-scale membrane bioreactor that can produce re-usable water from an apartment complex’s sewage. The bioreactor cleans wastewater from the Apartments at Mines Park, which provides student housing at the Colorado School of Mines, a partner in the Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Re-inventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIt), an NSF-funded research center based at Stanford University.

Impact/benefits: 

The bioreactor is demonstrating that a small, decentralized water treatment plant at the neighborhood scale can be more efficient than transporting water miles away to one large facility. Decentralizing treatment plants that also produce resources from wastewater can help utilities, particularly in the parched West, to more efficiently treat and preserve precious water. 

Explanation/Background: 

Raw sewage from about 250 apartments at the Mines Park complex is diverted through a sanitary sewer to a hybrid system of sequencing batch reactors (SBRs) and membrane bioreactors (MBRs), which are uniquely suited for treating wastewater in decentralized settings. Conventional, activated-sludge processes used at larger, centralized plants employ several dedicated unit processes. SBRs instead manage their operations through time, thus operations and process conditions are highly flexible to accommodate the varied flows from decentralized settings, such as an apartment complex.

MBRs are also ideal for decentralized settings, which generally do not have full-time, onsite staff.

The success of the Mines Park plant drew the attention of Science Nation, NSF’s online science magazine, which featured the facility in a three-minute video published in October 2016. Alongside professors John McCray and Junko Munakata-Marr, the video featured three ReNUWIt Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) participants. The Science Nation video, which has reached thousands of aspiring young engineers, helps increase awareness of the program through wide access channels.