EDMONTON – A wastewater treatment process developed by a fledgling Canadian business made history near the South Pole last month, and the original idea for it has its roots in a northeast Edmonton garage.
Peter Christou’s company Swirltex made history at Antarctica’s Concordia station after its water treatment system became the highest altitude operating membrane treatment plant in the world; translation: the company is able to turn waste water into usable water at an altitude where it’s never been done before.
Christou invented the system and says the idea for it was first conceived and worked over in his Edmonton garage.
About a year ago, he was trying to find a solution for oil water separation and developed a method to do so that he realized may also work for separating waste from water.
Here’s how it works: the waste is forced through a series of tube membranes under high pressure so that the usable water comes out from the sides and the excrement just goes through. A fin at the top of the tubes causes the water to churn at a high rate of speed inside and separates the more dense waste and lets the water move out the sides more efficiently.
The company was commissioned to try its water treatment system by the Concordia Research Station which is run by France and Italy. A number of other firms were also involved in getting the treatment system up and running at the diesel-powered station.
“To convince a government agency to give you a shot, when you’re a small company with a product you made in your garage, isn’t the easiest,” Christou said.
Since 2005, the station has been using snow for water and then disposing of the wastewater by dumping it on the ice. Christou said he’s proud to have found a way to end that practice.
“What we’ve done is really set new environmental standards for stations operating in Antarctica,” he said. “They’re reusing all that water now. So, that’s just not going into the environment, that is being reused on the station from everything from shower to cleaning.”
The recycled water can not be used for drinking.
“There’s not a lot of extras to it. It’s just making sure we have the right pressure and velocity going through the membrane,” Christou said. “Everybody has looked at changing the membrane, using the membrane differently – not really how you condition the liquid.”
Treating water has been attempted by some major European firms in Anatarctica before but Swirltex’s was the first successful try.
“Waste water treatment is a biological process and at that altitude, water boils at different temperatures,” Christou said. “Bio-chemical reactions happen completely differently too.”
Christou will return to Antarctica next year for a followup visit and to run more tests on his system.
“It’s hard to get people excited about their poop plant,” he said. “But definitely, the French and the Italians really got behind it.”
With files from Vinesh Pratap