Luxembourg’s Institute of Science and Technology plays a key role in ensuring the country’s water quality and wastewater management. Dr. Henry-Michel Cauchie, head of environmental microbiology and biotechnology tells us more about his work, new technological innovations and the challenge of ensuring water security and safety in Luxembourg.
Source : siliconluxembourg.lu
Publication date : 04/29/2022
Your work at LIST revolves around ensuring a constant and high quality of water supply. Why is this an important research topic?
Currently, all our water needs are covered by surface water and groundwater reservoirs. However, besides a growing opulation, there are additional stressors that make it important to keep a close eye on the situation.
A major threat we are facing is high eutrophication levels (i.e., the gradual increase in the concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients in the water system). This is mainly caused by the runoff of fertiliser used in agriculture, but also by incomplete nutrient removal in some wastewater treatment plants.
Another threat is the presence of microbes from manure in our water supply. With daily consumption levels reaching 120K cubic metres it is impossible to keep an overview of every single drop of water. This is why we are working on implementing new sensors which allow us to remotely monitor the water quality.
You’ve worked at LIST for over a decade. What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in your areas of research?
One of the biggest changes has been the increase of digitalisation in the sector. The possibility to make better risk assessments has increased exponentially because of the increase of data we now have. We have managed to identify the areas in which sensors were missing and increased their capabilities. We now possess sensors that can detect bacteria almost in real-time. Our research has advanced so far that we are now even working on sensors able to detect viruses.
What would happen if your sensors detected the presence of a virus in our drinking water?
First of all, we have to say that due to the many barriers and treatments in place this would be very unlikely. However, if we did find any microbial contamination, security plans in place prevent the contaminated water to reach the consumers. Consumers can also be notified to use bottled water or to boil tap water. In Luxembourg, we also have groundwater resources that can be used in case of such contamination emergencies. So there are different levels of detection that in the future we will be able to automate with the help of advanced sensors and digital interfaces.
How are you making our current wastewater treatment practices more sustainable?
When it comes to wastewater treatment LIST doesn’t work so much on developing large scale solutions but we focus more on specific use cases. In the last case, we worked on wastewater from hospitals that have high levels of pharmaceutical drugs. We are currently working with several private companies to develop modules for wastewater treatment that are more energy-efficient and less wasteful.
Furthermore, we are not only working on using more sustainable methods of wastewater treatment but also on finding secondary purposes for wastewater. So rather than just treating it and letting it go in the river, we are trying to recycle it. It is also important to mention that LIST puts a lot of emphasis on Sustainability by Design. Any new technology we use will be evaluated in terms of energy efficiency and water usage to minimise its environmental impact.