Coagulation process automation receives award

When looking at the process of coagulation automation, there is considerable interest. One such researcher is Hiua Daraei, an Iranian-Australian who was a National Finalist in the Student Water Prize.

When looking at the process of coagulation automation, there is considerable interest. One such researcher is Hiua Daraei, an Iranian-Australian who was a National Finalist in the Australian Water Association (AWA) Student Water Prize.

Moving overseas to continue cutting-edge research remains a priority for thousands of young people worldwide. That’s particularly the case in the water and wastewater industry, where people from around the globe have come to Australian universities to study. This includes Hiua Daraei. Originally from Iran, he moved to Adelaide to complete his PhD and is now a research fellow at the Cities Research Institute, Griffith University on the Gold Coast.

“After completing my Master’s degree in Iran, I had an opportunity to serve as a university lecturer instead of completing about two years of military service,” Daraei said. “It was an excellent opportunity for me, and I worked in the Department of Environmental Health Engineering at the Kurdistan University of Medical Sciences.”

Daraei’s background is primarily in analytical chemistry and chemometrics, which makes him a good fit within the Department. It also helped fulfil his potential as a researcher in the water and wastewater industries.

“In Iran, our research team worked predominantly on wastewater treatment processes,” he said. “The primary focus of our research was on the development of novel modified nanomaterials, membranes and electrodic processes to efficiently remove pollutants. Our research mostly focused on proof-of-concept studies as opposed to industry-based applications that would have measurable impacts on communities. However, for me personally, a key part that I value is that research outcomes include having beneficial impacts on relevant industries and communities.”

Coming to Australia

Coming to Australia was based on achieving new knowledge and skills that he considered essential in his career development. Daraei had long sought to have a beneficial impact on the water and wastewater industries and society in general. In his earlier research work in Iran, achieving that was not so clear, as his university-based research was conducted independently from direct industry involvement and input. Greater efforts have been made in recent years to address this and overcome the separation between university research work and industry involvement in Iran.

“In Australia, there are great opportunities to work with industries, including the water industry,” said Daraei. “I obtained a scholarship to undertake a PhD program at the University of South Australia as part of an Australian Research Council’s Linkage Project. This PhD program was undertaken under the principal supervision of Professor John Van Leeuwen.”

In Iran, many drinking water distribution systems are old and suffer from significant water leakage, and consequently, the distributed water can be of lower quality than expected at the customer tap. For Daraei, the opportunity to come to Australia to continue his research, both academically and importantly, with industrial partners being directly involved, has provided personal growth in key career knowledge and skills development.

What is he studying?

As part of his research, he worked to advance conventional water treatment processing. The original method was developed in Egypt more than 3,500 years ago and established as a conventional process in modern water treatment plants during the early 19th century. However, there is still ample room for research and advancement, particularly in process control and automation.

“The established and routinely applied process control part of this technology is a little old-fashioned,” Daraei said. “It often involves time-consuming and labour-intensive testing to determine optimum processing. That is particularly the case when running jar tests. However, water treatment operators often do not like doing these tests because they are time consuming and require frequent water sampling and data analyses. The output can also be subjective based on the operator’s understandings and decision-making.”

Daraei’s PhD and post-PhD research projects were to make it simpler for water and potentially wastewater treatment operators to determine the optimum coagulant doses for targeted treated water quality. He focused on developing mathematical models for the real-time application of a novel fluorescence probe developed by Xylem Australia, the EXO fDOM Smart Sensor.

“This new probe can provide the required online, real-time water quality data we are looking for, but this technology had been primarily designed for environmental waters, including seawaters,” said Daraei. “Seawater does not tend to have much turbidity and organic matter-related interferences for the signal. That’s not the case for water treatment plants fed by surface waters, particularly rivers and reservoirs.”

Dealing with coagulation, flocculation and settling processes

Anyone in the water and wastewater industry would be familiar with the importance of these processes. Daraei is no stranger to them either.

“They are known as the heart of the conventional water treatment plants,” said Daraei. “Coagulants, in the right amount, allow water treatment plants to remove most particulate matter measured as turbidity and dissolved natural organic matter. That can make the remaining stages of water treatment easier, more efficient and affordable, also removing part of the concerns around micro-organisms and viruses.”

If the dosage of coagulants or flocculants is either insufficient or even excessive, this can cause water treatment problems. Any problems or drop in efficiency can result in higher costs in water treatment plant operations, whether using a higher volume of chemicals than necessary or having to account for more treatment through not having enough.

“It is imperative to tune in the level of coagulants carefully,” he said. “They play such an important role in removing turbidity and contaminants that other stages are nowhere near as effective.”

This is why properly removing organic matter is vital. If an insufficient level of coagulant is used before chlorination, only some of the organic matter responsible for DBPFP is removed. Chlorination reacting with the residual organic matter can generate disinfection by-products, some of which have been reported to be carcinogenic.

“Australia has very tight standards around levels of residual turbidity and colour as well as DBPs and chlorine levels in produced waters,” Daraei said. “It’s because Australia wants to maintain good-quality water, and at the most fundamental level, the process of using coagulants has a key role in the resulting water quality.”

Outcomes and partnerships

Daraei has focused on influencing society and industry to translate his research outcomes into technology. However, it can be challenging to get new technology into active use.

“The first part of my research is taking my findings and developing them into a viable technology,” he said. “We also need to show that the technology is suitable for industry use and is reliable. For this, we needed our partner organisations to support evaluation trials and help us scale the developments to a commercial level.”

Daraei pointed out that this can be an issue in many countries. Rules and policies determine how things can and should be commercialised. From his side, Daraei believes that his research has made significant progress, and the industry partners involved have provided significant help in developing the technology and translating it into practical outcomes.

“Working with companies like Seqwater, Melbourne Water, and Xylem has been fantastic,” Daraei said. “I have found their support and encouragement to be brilliant. I didn’t have that experience in Iran because of the separation of academia and industry. Everyone has been open to supporting me with all that was needed for the PhD project. I’m looking forward to the implementation stage of the research outcomes.”

Award winner

Daraei said it is a great honour to be a finalist in the Student Water Prize for the Australian Water Association (AWA). In his own words, his PhD examination process was very challenging as an overseas student and took longer than he originally planned.

“I collected a large number of water samples and did a significant volume of water quality analyses,” he said. “Many would think the rest of the project would be just modelling. However, it was extremely complicated to analyse the large database generated. I just fought and persevered to attain what I was working on.”

This nomination is a gift for him as it acknowledges his work over the last few years.

“It was a relief to receive this nomination,” he said. “At the end of it all, it’s great to be recognised by experts in the field.”

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