The Research Page

Surrounded by water

(April 1, 1999, Gazette)

By James O'Brien

Water, water, everywhere, and making that water safe to drink, and usable for industrial applications, is the business of Dr. Hongde Zhou.

As a civil engineer specializing in environmental applications, Dr. Zhou has worked on numerous research projects related to the treatment of water and wastewater, both in industrial settings and for human consumption.

Dr. Zhou began his professional formation in mainland China, moving to the University of Alberta in 1989 where he obtained his doctorate in environmental engineering. His thesis was on ozonation, or the use of ozone to oxidize organic matter and kill resistant pathogens as a method of water treatment.

"What interests me in this area of research is the immediate impact on public welfare and safety," Dr. Zhou offered.

He elaborated by citing an incident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1991 in which many people were infected with a microorganism, and some of the more vulnerable among those infected died. Recently, a boiled water order was in effect in Corner Brook as a result of the contamination of that city's water supply by the organism causing giardia, commonly known as "beaver fever."

Dr. Zhou explained that these incidents have something in common. Traditionally, water for human use has been disinfected by chlorination, which does not destroy all microorganisms. Other technologies, such as ozonation, represent alternatives to traditional methods of water treatment that may be more effective.

The ozonation process, however, is difficult to manage.

"Ozonation kinetics occur so quickly, we still need to know more about what actually takes place," he said.

To better understand the process, Dr. Zhou studies the mass transfer and hydrodynamic properties of the reactor. Dr. Zhou feels such analysis, taken together with the reaction kinetics, enables him to better explore treatment alternatives.

There is also an industrial dimension of Dr. Zhou's work that is relevant to the pulp and paper industry in this province. Paper mills typically discharge wastewater used in their operations after secondary treatment. Under the auspices of the Sustainable Forest Management Network of Centres of Excellence (SFM-NCE), Dr. Zhou was recently awarded a major grant to study an alternative method of handling water in these settings.

This method has the objective of zero discharge, and is based on the continuous recycling of water within the plant. The water is kept sufficiently clean by filtering through a membrane made from synthetic organic materials.

The problem with such a proposal is that re-use of the membranes is difficult. Dr. Zhou wishes to study and model the mechanisms by which the membranes become fouled in order to develop control technologies. Overall, this project is part of the minimization of the impact of technology theme of the SFM-NCE's research and scientific excellence program.

Dr. Zhou also described an NSERC-sponsored research project in controlling the disinfection of by-products of water treatment, as well as his efforts to devise theoretical guidelines for the remediation of contaminated soil. The latter work may have potential for application to sites like Goose Bay and Argentia. As a researcher-consultant, Dr. Zhou has also investigated corrosion in soft water distribution systems in the Northwest Territories and designed many pollution control facilities as a consulting engineer at Stantech Consulting Ltd.

This research and consulting activity encompasses many aspects of basic science and environmental engineering. Dr. Zhou reports enjoying the interdisciplinary aspects of his work.

"The SFM-NCE group includes researchers from different disciplines, including engineers, foresters and biological scientists, and social scientists and economists."

Considering that the boreal forest covers 40 per cent of Canada's land mass, efforts like those undertaken by the SFM-NCE group to minimize the impact of technology on Canada's forests will have significant environmental repercussions.