SCOTTISH researchers are spearheading a study aimed at bringing cleaner drinking water to millions of homes across Europe.
A pilot project, due to launch this month at a water treatment facility on the banks of Lake Constance in Germany, follows more than a year of pioneering laboratory work by scientists at Glasgow Caledonian University.
Professor JiaQian Jiang, an expert in environmental engineering at the university, has been funded by two German companies – LW Water Supply and Lake Constance Water Supply – to develop a new way of treating drinking water.
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Dr Jiang's research, which began in 2011, investigates the possibilities of using ferrate (VI), a supercharged iron molecule, to remove micro pollutants.
It is thought ferrate produces fewer potentially toxic byproducts than the current process, which uses ozonation to degrade harmful micro-pollutants and chlorination to kill germs.
However, ozonation carries a risk of creating bromate molecules, a suspected carcinogen.
Both techniques are used as standard by the water industry in Europe, including Scottish Water.
Dr Jiang said: "The water industry applies ozonation to water because ozone is a strong oxidant and can degrade a number of organic pollutants and also kill harmful micro-organisms such as harmful bacteria.
"However, ozonation will produce some byproducts. For example, if the water contains bromides then, during ozonation, ozone will react with the bromide ions to form bromates. Bromate is a toxic substance, and is very highly regulated by the water industry.
"Drinking water has a very high restriction on bromate concentration – it must be smaller than 10 micrograms per litre. So that creates a problem for people using ozonation to kill viruses and bacteria and degrade organic pollutants.
"Another of the methods the water industry uses is chlorination, which uses chlorine to kill bacteria and provide safe drinking water.
"However, chlorine will also react with a number of organic pollutants to form several organic byproducts.
"Most of these byproducts, known as chlorinates, could have even greater toxicity than the original organic pollutants present in the water. So, again, there are a restrictions to limit chlorinate byproducts."
The technique devised by Dr Jiang and his team at GCU has been shown to reduce the risk of harmful byproducts.
He said: "Using our technology we will not produce bromate or a number of chlorinates. We expect fewer byproducts will be formed and less potential toxicity, which is why these water companies are interested."
Scottish Water undertakes about 350,000 tests every year on samples of water taken at treatment works, storage points and consumers' homes to verify the water quality meets the strict standards.
The Drinking Water Quality Regulator checks the results and makes sure any failures are investigated. The latest statistic showed more than 99% compliance with safety standards.
Dr Jiang and his team are launching the pilot project at the Lake Constance water treatment plant on the Rhine. They hope to show that techniques developed during laboratory tests at another German water treatment plant – on the Danube – can work on a larger scale and be as cost-effective as current processes.
If so, it could have a huge impact on the way drinking water is treated, ushering in the first major changes in 100 years.
The pilot scheme will run for six months and, if successful, the team will embark on full-scale trials at the two German water treatment plants.