We have many water filtration systems for water we take from our lakes, but what about the water – and pollutants – we put in them? Traditionally, storm sewers simply carry runoff into the water system carrying with it pollutants like phosphorus, which is a major cause of algae blooms and fish kills.
Lakehead University Orillia's Christopher (Chris) Murray, an assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, is looking for better ways of filtering that water to reduce phosphorus and other contaminants. His project represents the first time the Orillia campus has worked with an industry research partner, and the results will likely have world-wide applications.
That partner is Imbrium, a filtration company that is part of the Monteco family of companies. Before taking a professorship at Lakehead, Murray was an employee at Monteco, a Canadian clean-technology company that develops and launches environmentally sustainable products in the water and energy sectors.
Murray knew from his time working there that they often collaborated with colleges and universities on research projects. "Besides developing technologies for pollutant removal from water and air, scientists at Monteco's R&D facility spend much of their time keeping abreast of current academic research," he said. "They are constantly searching for new ideas to commercialize and opportunities for collaborative research."
"We were happy to collaborate on a project with Murray and Lakehead University," said Dr. Greg Williams, the director of Monteco's R&D Centre. "We knew from his time at Monteco that Chris was an excellent researcher. The Lake Simcoe region has relatively strict requirements for removal of phosphorous from rainwater and other non-point sources so it is a good place to do this kind of work. This combination of factors made the project an excellent fit for us."
Murray said that Monteco has been involved with very small-scale research projects with one of his undergraduate classes. About 20 students studied topics such as removing oil from wastewater, salt contamination of surface water and limiting greenhouse gas emissions from petrochemical plants. All the projects were short-term and there were no commercial objectives.
"It was a great experience for my students to be able to talk to people actually working on solutions to problems like these and learn more about real-life scientific issues in the community," Murray said.
But this project is much, much bigger.
Imbrium says its SorbtiveMedia, an absorbent, gravel-like material, filters up to 90% of the total phosphorus (including a large portion of dissolved phosphorus) and sediment, which carries additional pollutants. It is available in the North American and European markets, though according to its website the company is expanding globally. One high-profile watershed is in Montgomery County, Maryland. The county will use SorbtiveMedia to filter runoff as part of its plan to help reduce, by 3.1 million pounds, the amount of phosphorus currently in Chesapeake Bay.
It is an innovative solution. The system doesn't require electricity or indeed any human intervention, other than to replace the SorbtiveMedia in its huge storage chambers every year or two. Once the pollutants are captured, they don't leach back into water.
Monteco wants to make the material even more environmentally friendly. In 2011, the company provided the funding for Kayla Snyder, an arts and science student at Orillia, to spend six months looking at ways to improve the product. Murray himself continues to explore the next steps in the process, focusing on water quality and biodegradable materials, and finding alternative uses for the spent media.