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15 September 2020

Taylor’s Case Study: An End to Water Disruptions?

If we were given a penny for every time we were faced with water disruptions, we’d probably be able to earn a handsome figure by the end of the year.

With 1.2 mil consumers in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur alone, it’s common to see people frantically getting extra supply of water from tankers or filling up buckets for emergency use upon receiving news of water disruption, well, if it’s scheduled and if we get the message in time. And, let’s be honest, we all get annoyed and angry by it, scheduled or not

Water disruptions, or water cuts, can be caused by many factors like low water levels due to prolonged dry spells and pipe leakages. One reason that frequently recurs is water pollution due to illegal waste dumping by factories and honestly, it’s getting annoying.

The answer to this? Proper wastewater treatment.

The Conundrum of Proper Wastewater Treatment to Companies

Before we get into proper wastewater treatment, we need to understand what wastewater is and why this waste gets dumped into our waters in the first place. 

Wastewater refers to any liquid byproducts from households, hospitals, factories, and any other structure that uses water in its facilities. Typically, this wastewater is treated to ensure that it is safe to be discharged into the ocean and other large bodies of water. So you can imagine how much of a problem it would pose to the environment, wildlife, and even us, if wastewater isn’t treated before it gets thrown away.

According to Malaysia’s Environmental Quality Act 1974, discharge of toxic waste materials into the environment is strictly prohibited. Hence, the National Water Services Commission (SPAN) was set up to ensure proper wastewater treatment is done in accordance with the guidelines set so that the waste that is disposed of doesn’t pose any harm to the environment and the people. The government has even enforced specific laws and are currently looking to increase the severity of the penalties — really showing how serious this is.

Despite it being mandatory for every manufacturing company that generates wastewater to have a treatment plant, the high cost of building something that doesn’t generate any profit for the company isn’t very appealing. Hence, they find alternative solutions like researching ways to reduce the investment cost as low as possible while still meeting the minimum specification of discharged water set by the Department of Environment

However, doing this requires a lot of expertise and will constantly be a work in progress. The high cost and work involved to cut costs may seem unattractive to many companies, resulting in the illegal dumping of waste into our water supply and oceans.

So is there a real win-win situation to this conundrum? Dr. Wan Yoke Kin, Senior Lecturer of the School of Computer Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Innovation & Technology at Taylor’s University, may have a possible solution.

Experience Not Gone to Waste

With an interest in chemistry ever since high school, Dr. Wan decided to study chemical engineering when choosing her degree with the idea that they would be similar.

Despite it being different from what she expected, she found it to be interesting and realised the importance once she entered the industry.

After 7 years of working as a process and project engineer in the semiconductor and water & wastewater industry, she went on to continue her PhD in chemical engineering and is currently working on her research project at Taylor’s University.

Not wanting her working experience to go to waste, she decided to combine her research skills with her interest in Process System Engineering (PSE) to synthesise, design, and optimise the water and wastewater treatment by focusing her research grant on a mathematical approach. This acts as a tool to help companies make the best decisions by selecting the optimum combinations of treatment technologies based on their objectives, like having minimum cost.

“The mathematical approach is developed by formulating several series of mathematical equations such as mass, flow, and energy balances equations, cost or profit equations, and environmental-based related equations (e.g. carbon footprint, water footprint, etc). It will then be coded into a commercial optimisation software and can be applied to any kind of industry and processes,” she explained.

More Than Just the Minimum

This research doesn’t just address the concerns of companies out there, it also helps in reducing the harmfulness to marine life and increases the accessibility to clean water. Besides that, it also addresses 3 out of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Here’s how it addresses each of the 3 goals specifically:

1. SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Dr. Wan’s research will provide guidelines for industrial decision-makers to synthesise a wastewater treatment process that produces clean water. (No sudden pollution = no unscheduled water cuts!)

2. SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

By reducing the investment cost of the process, her research is able to provide a solution to improve the performance of manufacturing companies and, thus, overall economic growth.

3. SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production

Her research is also able to provide a solution in ensuring the treated water produced from the synthesised wastewater treatment process complies with government regulation.

Hopes for the Future

Dr. Wan hopes that she can take her research further and develop a mathematical model that’s flexible enough to suit different types of wastewater across different industries. She also plans to consider more design criteria needed by the various industries and include it into the wastewater treatment design. 

She also hopes that her research will be promoted to those in the industry so that their design problems can be solved. Dr. Wan expressed, “We did quite well for the research but I think there is still room for improvement to grow our research. To do that more resources and facilities are needed. More funding would support us to present our research works at more conferences, build our network and get more collaborators, as well as exchanging research ideas so that it can be further expanded.”

Undergraduate students can also be a part of this revolutionary research by applying to be a Research Assistant (RA). “Due to our normal busy workload, it’s quite hard for us to find time to do things like data collection. We need helpers and research assistants. This would be a great opportunity for students to learn and get familiar with our research so that they can later conduct theirs.”

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DR. WAN YOKE KIN
FACULTY OF INNOVATION & TECHNOLOGY
CHEMICAL ENGINEERING
WASTEWATER TREATMENT
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

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