Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Water to have greener, cleaner future

It’s a problem that affects everyone — cities, rural areas, farms, factories and countries both rich and poor: waste.

But a team of scientists at the University of Denver is exploring breakthrough technologies that use simple properties to solve the vexing problem. Using what’s known as a Vertical Tube Reactor (VTR), DU scientists are working with Golden, Colo., based Applied Science and Engineering to employ water, gravity and the earth itself to turn the nastiest of substances into clean water and “green” electricity.

Through demonstration projects that produce real results, the team is proving a VTR processing plant could turn municipal sewage, industrial waste, commercial agriculture byproducts—and even the waste left behind by oil and gas exploration—into clean water, reusable solids and electricity.

“Everywhere in the world, and especially in arid areas like the West, we are facing tremendous water problems. It’s going to be increasingly important that we deal with waste in ways that don’t squander the water resources we do have,” says Keith Miller, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “The idea that a technology could be out there to help address these needs — that’s very exciting.”

The basics behind VTR waste management sound simple. Tainted water is pumped into a sealed tube bored deep into the earth, then air is pumped into the tube, combining with the effects of gravity to create high pressure and temperatures of up to 500 degrees that lead to what’s called “wet oxidation.” The effects of these high temperatures and pressure destroy impurities and force solids out of the mix. The result: treated water.

Miller says DU’s involvement stems from an encounter with alumnus and inventor Jay McGrew (PhD chemical engineering ’68), who runs Applied Science and Engineering and had been involved in VTR development, including a large-scale test plant, since the 1980s.

“It was just a technology that was ahead of its time,” Miller says. “Now, its time has come. It’s clean and it works.”

As a byproduct, the wet oxidation process creates tremendous heat that can be used to generate power. In its current form, Miller says, tubes have the very real potential to be “energy neutral,” developing enough power to run themselves. In the very near future, it’s possible the tubes could create enough energy to put power back into the grid for others to use.

Miller says students working with the research are examining applications that demonstrate the VTR’s effectiveness in eliminating one particularly vexing and increasingly common pollutant: pharmaceuticals.

Testing is done at a small-sale reactor that takes up a corner of a DU lab. A tube containing about a liter of fluid rotates to infuse oxygen into the mix, while a heat is added to simulate the heat that would be generated underground in a large-scale plant. In the lab, researchers can study how different materials react to different conditions.

“That’s the exciting part for our students — showing them that we can take so many things out of the water system cheaply and without adding more chemicals, from pharmaceuticals in our country to harmful organisms like E. coli bacteria and other waterborne pathogens that cause illness in poorer countries.”

Miller and Applied Sciences and Engineering demonstrated the project to delegates assembled for the Democratic National Convention in August, and he says the technology has advanced to the point where it’s become commercially viable.

“It’s very close,” he says. “This is a very real development.”

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