BEAST and Biosensors: GPRC Instructor Collaborating on National Research Council Project
Wednesday, August 26th, 2020
GPRC Researcher and Chairperson for the Department of Science, Dr. Sean Irwin.
GPRC researcher and Chairperson for the Department of Science, Dr. Sean Irwin, is helping pilot test a “beast” of a new technology.
Formally known as the Bioelectrochemical Anaerobic Sewage Treatment, the BEAST is part of a cluster of research projects led by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) that aim to make wastewater treatment easier and more affordable for small communities. Bezanson, Alberta is among the BEAST’s pilot testing locations, along with Montreal, Cambridge Bay (Nunavut) and Alaska.
The BEAST is a treatment system that degrades organic compounds in the water using an anaerobic process and electric currents. For small and northern communities like Bezanson, the BEAST’s high efficiency and ease of use could mean significant cost and time-savings for the municipality. “We tried to produce a simple technology that would be easy to use,” said NRC researcher Dr. Boris Tartakovsky.
Treating the wastewater is not the only difficult part of the process. To ensure effluent from the treatment system is safe for the environment, provincial governments impose strict testing procedures. “Anybody treating sewage has to be constantly sampling their sewage and analyzing it in a laboratory to make sure it meets government standards,” said GPRC researcher Dr. Sean Irwin, who is a collaborator on the project. “It’s costly and time-consuming.”
To address this issue, the NRC is also developing a microbial fuel cell biosensor (patent pending) which can provide real-time measurement of the concentration of organic compounds in the water. This reduces the need to send samples to a laboratory, which can take several days to return results. “The lab sample is still the gold standard,” said Irwin. “We wouldn’t be replacing that, but hopefully supplementing it.” At this stage in the research, Irwin says the biosensor is performing on par with the laboratory analysis, producing results comparable to the more expensive laboratory procedure.
Irwin has spent the last several months supporting the Bezanson-based pilot testing of the biosensor. His work has involved recording, tracking and analyzing biosensor readings and comparing the results to other industry standard testing methods. Outside of treatment technologies like the BEAST, Irwin says the biosensor can be used in a variety of contexts. “Pulp and paper mills also need to test their effluent, and I’m sure the oil field has challenges with water testing as well. You could use it in a lot of different areas,” said Irwin.
NRC researcher and project manager for the biosensor initiative, Dr. Ademola Adekunle, says collaborations with industry, local environmental action groups, other government departments and academia has been key to this project’s success. “Really, without this type of linkage and collaborations, there cannot be impactful developments,” said Adekunle. “Research innovation must be tailored towards end-user needs through an iterative, collaborative process.” Adekunle hopes the door will stay open for more local collaborations in the future.
As pilot testing for the BEAST and the biosensor proceed into the latter stages and scaled-up and improved models continue to be developed and tested, small northern communities are the ones who stand to benefit the most from this progress. Living in Canada’s north will always have its challenges, but research initiatives like this one can help northern communities thrive.
The wastewater treatment research in Bezanson is a local collaboration between NRC, Elkan Environmental Engineering, the County of Grande Prairie and GPRC. This project has gratefully received support from the Grande Prairie Regional Innovation Network (GPRIN).
Learn more about the BEAST project here.
Learn more about GPRC Research and Innovation here.