water treatment plant

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

By Rupsha Basu
News Editor

A new project will repurpose sewage water to fuel air conditioning and heating at Emory by spring 2015.

The project, called the Water Reclamation Facility (WRF), is currently under construction on Peavine Creek Road near the baseball field and behind Beta Theta Pi fraternity. It will consist of an indoor greenhouse facility as well as an outdoor facility between the fraternity house and the baseball field.

WRF is the first of its kind in the nation to use hydroponic technology to treat waste water, according to Brent Zern, environmental engineer for the Division of Campus Services. Hydroponic technology is a water-based method of growing plants that uses mineral solutions rather than soil, Zern said.

WRF’s function is to conserve water and save utility water costs, Zern said. He added that this is especially necessary given that Atlanta is undergoing heavy droughts – a “water crisis.”

The project began three years ago with feasibility studies from an economic and engineering perspective, Zern said.

As soon as the Board of Trustees gave the greenlight, construction began last winter and will conclude in either January or February of 2015. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the facility in April, Zern said.

According to Zern, large plants in the greenhouse will have a substantial root system which undergoes a ecologically-based, biological treatment.

“The magic happens in the root system,” Zern said.

The roots are submerged in aerobic and anaerobic chambers – or large concrete vaults – that are home to 2,000-3,000 unique microorganisms that are able to break down waste, according to an Oct. 22 post on the University’s sustainability initiatives website.

Liquid waste from one of the three underground waste lines at Emory will be recycled and circulated through these chambers and treated with the microorganisms. The water first gets circulated through the indoor chambers and then the outdoor facility, which has different, climate-specific plants.

“Waste water is moved through the chambers, and these organisms eat the waste,” Zern said. “When it comes out, it’s a very clean water product.” He added, however, that this recycled water is never meant to be drinkable.

The WRF can treat 400,000 gallons of water per day, which amounts to 146 million gallons per year, Zern said. He added that the facility will not produce to capacity at all times and will produce a projected average of 300,000 gallons of reusable water per day.

Emory currently has a chiller plant and a steam plant that converts clean water from the county to air conditioning and heating for every building. According to Zern, the WRF would do away with the need to purchase drinkable water from the county and instead use recycled waste water.

The amount of water treated will also be seasonally dependent. During hotter months, the water will be repurposed for the chiller plant, and during cooler months, it will be repurposed for the steam plant, Zern said. The Office of Sustainability Initiatives will also pursue the possibility of reusing the water for plumbing in Raoul Hall.

According to Zern, Vice President of Campus Services Matthew Early does not want to reveal the monetary specifics of how much Emory is saving by converting to this sustainable alternative.

However, Zern said that currently Emory pays a certain amount for utility plants in addition to the cost of the clean water from the county.

“Right now, we use good drinking water supplied by the county – we don’t need that quality of water,” Zern said.

This facility would eliminate the cost of the clean water, and Emory will receive the waste water at a significantly reduced price, according to Zern.

The facility will also be available as living, learning laboratories for Emory faculty and students, Zern said. Some classes, such as one taught by Eugene J. Gangarosa Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation in the Rollins School of Public Health Christine Moe have already taken samples from the greenhouse.

Originally, the greenhouse facility without the outdoor component was designed to treat 200,000 gallons per day, but Zern said Early wanted for it to process more. Therefore, the lot behind Beta Theta Pi became the second, outdoor component of the WRF.

According to Zern, other facilities like this exist in parts of Europe and China, but the ecological treatment is unique to the WRF in the United States.

“Other people might reclaim water using chemical treatment,” Zern said. He added that the WRF is a smaller-scale project and uses few chemicals.

“We’re leading the way in water conservation efforts,” Zern said.

– By Rupsha Basu, News Editor

Correction 12/03 12:06 p.m.: This article was updated to change the first sentence, which mistakenly said the project was commissioned by the Office of Sustainability Initiatives. The information attributed to a post on the University’s sustainability initiatives page also mistakenly was attributed to an Office of Sustainability Initiatives press release.