Liquid Assets

As the California drought brings home the global problem of water scarcity, Columbia engineers are advancing a challenging idea: reusing our wastewater. Are we ready to go with the flow?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2015
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This is the Columbia Community Garden. During the spring of 2011, Chandran’s engineering students, who were using the food waste from the Mudd cafeteria to produce biodiesel and methane, worked to recover nutrients as well, which they used as fertilizer to grow food in this garden. It was a glimpse of a system of resource recovery and reuse that Chandran envisions on different scales: home, building, city. He mentions residential buildings like the Visionaire in Lower Manhattan, which repurposes graywater for the cooling tower, toilets, and green-roof irrigation.

“This isn’t science fiction,” says Chandran, and you get the feeling he’s talking about not just these solutions, but also the crises occasioning them. “This is already happening.”

Ripple Effect

Once he gets his master’s degree, Luke Plante will return to his alma mater, West Point, and teach in the engineering department from which he graduated. Plante knows the value of water infrastructure, having spent time in Afghanistan, where the rates of access to safe drinking water are among the lowest in the world.

On the morning of his anammox rendezvous in Brooklyn, Plante, the cooler in his grip, pauses to observe the slender channel of water that runs adjacent to the facility.

This seven-thousand-foot-long tributary, straight as a landing strip, flows into Jamaica Bay. The creek used to be fed by a stream. Now it receives the nitrogen-reduced, chlorine-treated outflow of the wastewater-treatment plant, one of the five New York facilities that Chandran had worked on.

On the other side of the water is a big-box-store shopping center (Best Buy, Marshalls, BJ’s Wholesale Club), but Plante’s eyes are trained on the silvery creek itself, which, bordered by the wastewater plant and the shopping complex, wears an aspect of challenged ecology, of uncertain habitat.

An outcropping rises spine-like in the middle of the creek, and on it stands a big, long-necked, shimmery black bird. A great cormorant? The bird is perfectly still.

There’s a splash in the water.

“A fish!” says Plante, pointing at the wrinkles on the surface, where a fleck of orange appears and quickly vanishes. “That was a fish.”

Plante shields his eyes and watches the water a little while longer. The sun climbs a stairway of dense white clouds. Water cascades into the creek, incessant as a waterfall, and rolls slowly to the bay.

Kartik Chandran is an associate professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia. Applications of his work include several full-scale wastewater-treatment plants around the globe and biorefineries in North America and sub-Saharan Africa.

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