UMass’ mobile lab is new frontier in water testing

  • UMass research engineer Patrick Wittbold, left, gives Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, a tour of a new mobile water testing lab at the Statehouse in Boston, Thursday. for The Recorder/M.J. Tidwell

For the Recorder
Published: 5/21/2018 3:14:26 PM

BOSTON — Around 100 years ago, scientists created treatment standards for water to make it safe to use and drink. By and large, those standards are still in use today, a UMass Amherst professor told officials who came to tour a new mobile water testing lab at the Statehouse in Boston.

Engineering professor David Reckhow said there have been huge technological innovations in areas from communication to biotech, but water treatment technology has stayed largely the same over the past hundred years.

“There’s no shortage of good ideas,” Reckhow said, “only a lack of facilities to test them.”

The conventional treatment standards work and control waterborne contaminants, he said, but may not address longer-term issues like lead or chemical compounds. Furthermore, he said municipalities spend large portions of their budgets on water treatment and the energy required for current water treatment methods.

Testing new technology for water treatment can be tricky, he said, without exposing the entire water supply to an experiment gone wrong or building a facility just to test a single technology.

That’s where the new mobile water testing lab comes in.

Grants from Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New England Water Innovation Network and corporate sponsors funded the 36-foot-long trailer lab, which on Thursday parked squarely in front of the Statehouse.

Equipped with “state-of-the-art treatment and monitoring systems,” the lab whirred and hummed as water moved through tubes around the trailer. Neat blue labels marked the locations of the total organic carbon analyzer, turbidimeter and amperometric disinfectant.

Reckhow said the trailer can move around to small towns and implement new water treatment technologies in its mobile lab, completely separate from the existing water supply.

Stephen Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, said at the event that the mobile water innovation laboratory represents partnership and innovation, right there in its name, which also includes UMass, the Clean Energy Center and the water innovation network.

He said the lab won’t be just for testing water; it will also create opportunities to find more energy-efficient methods of water treatment.

“I think many people would be surprised to learn that water treatment technology is much the same as it was 100 years ago,” Pike said before going on his own tour. “To see the lab here, visible and tangible, is terrific, and seeing the results will be even better.”

After touring the lab, Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton said it’s rewarding to see the project come to fruition and that not many people realize the energy and expense that goes into the clean water they drink. He said the lab will provide an opportunity to find the best water treatment options.

Rep. John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, also toured the lab.

Santhosh Krishna, a master’s student studying environmental engineering at UMass Amherst, said he was particularly interested in working on the mobile testing lab project with Reckhow because clean water is an important issue in his home of India.

“For me, it’s about finding economical solutions for water treatment,” Krishna said. “It really resonates with me and where I’m from.”

He said he and other students involved in the research project traveled to small towns around Massachusetts to see firsthand how they treat their water.

He said he thought in a developed country like America, things like water treatment infrastructure would be well maintained with updated technology.

“But what I saw was a different picture,” Krishna said. “These small towns’ water treatment infrastructures really do need help.”

UMass Amherst professor of engineering John Tobiason said researching new water technology has been a focus of his entire career and he’s interested to see what will come from its first official deployment.

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