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Water Treatment

Tapping the Potential of Wastewater in Saudi Arabia

| Editor: Alexander Stark

Assessing and improving the safety of treated wastewater is the current focus of Kaust Assistant Professor Peiying Hong’s research.
Assessing and improving the safety of treated wastewater is the current focus of Kaust Assistant Professor Peiying Hong’s research. (Source: Kaust)

Factors such as increasing worldwide population growth and increased levels of global warming mean that the world's freshwater resources are increasingly strained and drained. Researchers at Kaust, Saudi Arabia, are trying to harness the potential of wastewater in order to address global water scarcity.

Riyadh/Saudi Arabia — A quick online search confirms the unquestionable importance of water globally and the role it plays in human survival — be it the 844 million people worldwide who lack even a basic drinking water service, including the 159 million people who are dependent on surface water; or the at least two billion people who use a drinking water source contaminated with feces; or how by 2025, half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas.

Peiying Hong, Kaust assistant professor of environmental science and engineering, dedicates the majority of her time to water research, and in particular wastewater and harnessing its potential to address global water scarcity and to improve global health issues in developing countries. Hong's research aims to understand the roles and interactions of microorganisms in ecosystems and utilize these insights to solve problems related to water quality and water reuse. Hong believes that treated wastewater is a valuable alternative water resource, noting, that she believes we can reuse water, but first we needed to convince people to reuse wastewater and to convince them that it is safe.

From Singapore to Saudi Arabia

As a native of Singapore, Hong is all too aware of the need to have readily accessible safe groundwater supplies and the role desalination and treated wastewater can play in meeting water needs. It was during her time at the National University of Singapore (Nus) where Hong first developed molecular methods to detect wastewater contamination.

According to Singapore's National Water Agency, Pub, the demand for water in Singapore is currently about 430 million gallons a day — that is enough water to fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Pub also believe that "by 2060, Singapore's total water demand could almost double...and that desalination will meet up to 85 % of Singapore's future water demand."

In addition to desalinated waters, treated wastewater, also forms a very important source of water for my home country, said Hong. Through research and development, Singapore is now self-sufficient in water, and hence she believes that the same can be done to address water scarcity issues in many other countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Freshwater for both industrial, agricultural and human use is scarce in Saudi Arabia, and Kaust and Nus have a history of collaboration on water research. In 2016, both launched a research partnership focusing on hybrid desalination technology. The collaboration has led to the creation of a spin-off company called Medad, which aims to create an efficient, low-cost method of conducting desalination called hybrid multi-effect adsorption desalination.

Current Research

Hong's current research at Kaust aims to address global water scarcity issues by promoting the use of alternative water resources like treated wastewater and seawater to alleviate the demand on our non-renewable freshwater supplies. The bulk of her research focuses on assessing and improving the safety of treated wastewater.

The main goal of her research and research questions is to identify critical knowledge gaps and exploit new approaches to deliver novel insights that advance water reuse programs in a safe and sustainable manner. These approaches include: implementing engineering approaches that balance both sustainability and safety concerns; developing best management practices to minimize risks associated with water reuse; and facilitating the development of policy, regulation and institutional initiatives.

The basis for the research directions within her team involves understanding three core principles: firstly, the diversity, fate and persistence of microbial contaminants in wastewater; secondly, how existing wastewater treatment technologies fare in terms of removing microbial contaminants; and thirdly, how anaerobic processes can be developed into a safe and sustainable technology to treat wastewater. Hong and her group seek to provide the fundamental science and goal-oriented research underpinning improvements in water health and water management.

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