UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 2 | Feb.
UBC Sewage is Not a Waste
Its a dirty job, but UBC-developed technology is
leading the way in how to do it
By Michelle Cook
It operates out of a humble looking pair of trailers parked
alongside a ditch at the south end of campus, and its
been quietly helping to clean UBCs sewage for almost
20 years. But only lately have people worldwide begun to recognize
the profound advances in waste water treatment that have been
made at the universitys Biological Nutrient Removal
(BNR) Pilot Plant.
The small-scale pilot plant was built by the Civil Engineering
Dept.s Environmental Engineering Program in 1985. One
of only two facilities of its kind in Canada, it treats about
five per cent of the sewage generated on campus. This year
the plant, the program and the department have been nominated
for the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize. The international
environmental award, on par with a Nobel prize, honours outstanding
achievements in the protection of the worlds water resources.
It all started with a few bugs.
The BNR plant uses naturally occurring microbes -- or bugs
-- to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from the universitys
waste water. Once removed, these elements become by-products
that can be re-used as fertilizer. Its an environmentally
friendly approach to waste management that can also generate
revenue through the sale of the fertilizer by-products. More
and more municipalities worldwide are adopting it -- based
in large part on the research done at UBC over the last 20
We look at waste as a resource, says Prof. Don
Mavinic, group leader of the Environmental Engineering Program
and one of the BNR plants founders. If you look
at it, its a product, not a problem, and we call it
integrated environmental technology.
Treating waste biologically is cheaper than the more conventional
chemical method, Mavinic says. Unlike chemicals, there are
no purchase costs, or costs to dispose of chemical-laced sludge
that cant be put in landfills or incinerated.
We basically set up the temperature and pH conditions
for the bugs to do their thing, and they merrily go around
and do the work of removing the nitrogen and phosphorus from
the discharge stream, Mavinic says.
Helping them to get the mix just right is UBCs Dept.
of Microbiology and Immunology, which has provided advice
and research on the best bugs for the cleaning
job. To date, 17 PhD students and 25 MASc students have carried
out research at the facility.
The idea of getting bugs to do the dirty work wasnt
developed at UBC. The technique originated in South Africa,
but only for use in one temperature condition, making it ineffective
in harsher climates. Bill Oldham, now professor emeritus in
the Civil Engineering Dept. and another founder of the BNR
plant, pioneered a way to adapt biological nutrient removal
technology so that the bugs could do their work in all kinds
of temperature conditions.
Today, advanced nutrient removal treatment technology is
being purchased by municipalities around the world to treat
their waste water. Globally, more than 20 per cent of eligible
facilities have already adopted the biological approach. Canadas
prairie provinces have switched over completely to biological
nutrient removal techniques.
Weve developed a research and knowledge base
that no one else in the world has at this scale, Mavinic
says. Municipalities from the European Union to Australia
are purchasing and adapting the technology to treat their
The nitrogen and phosphorus-rich sludge by-product can be
used in mining reclamation and in forestry activities. UBC
is currently involved in projects at B.C.s Kootenay
and Arrow Lake dams to use fertilizer recovered from the BNR
plant to help restore the balance of the nutrient content
in the dams reservoirs.
UBC has also partnered with B.C. Hydro, the municipality
of Penticton, B.C. and the Greater Vancouver Regional District
on a project to research the use of a pure phosphorus fertilizer,
known as struvite.
This years winner of the Stockholm Water Prize will
be announced at the end of March.