Staying on Track

Sabrina de Boer (ESR9)

The development of the magnetic levitation (maglev) train in Germany could be denounced as a failure. Billions were invested in creating a faster and more efficient way of transportation. In the end, it was not applied in Europe. Not because it was not efficient, but because it was not competitive enough with the existing means of transportation. The decision to stop the development was also provoked by a terrible accident on the test track. Even though it was not caused by a technical failure, trust in the innovative technology was lost.

You might ask, what has a high-speed magnetic train to do with new water treatment technologies?

In a broader sense, I also work with magnetic vehicles. I use tiny particles that can be attracted by a magnet as a support for special catalysts: Enzymes. These complex structures are the base for vital functions, from metabolism to sensing, and are present in all living organisms. Enzymes derived from mushrooms can degrade wood towards essential nutrients. Scientists found out that they are also able to degrade harmful substances from wastewater. For example, antibiotics.

Antibiotics save thousands of lives each year, but having done the job in our body, they remain active, are flushed down the toilet, and reach the treatment plant. In their current state, wastewater treatment plants cannot retain these substances completely. Consequently, antibiotics enter rivers where they can cause toxic effects to water organisms and promote the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are increasingly affecting human health.[1] Since the abolition of antibiotics is not an option, wastewater treatment is the most substantial barrier to keep medicines in their field of action.

By introducing an enzymatic treatment stage, it could transform antibiotics in non-toxic products with no residual activity. Also, enzymes will be attached to magnetic particles to prevent their release, or to keep them “on track”. This means that while the uncontaminated water can be smoothly discharged to the river, the enzymes will remain inside the treatment plant to be used multiple times.

The enzymes work at ambient temperatures without the need to add harmful chemicals, so the risk that the implementation of the technology will be involved in a fatal accident is low. Still, I have to prove that my magnetic helpers do not have negative effects on the environment in the case they go “off track” and find their way to the river.

I am also optimizing the manufacturing process, using less harmful chemicals. Because we have always been alerted that by solving a problem, we do not create another. And if we do, find a solution to this problem too. In the case of wastewater treatment technologies, every additional stage in the treatment train will have an impact on the environment, even if we try to minimize it. We have to discuss at very different levels if the benefit pays off the impact.

Today, there is only one high-speed maglev track in operation in China. Recently, the switches were set to construct the first large distance track.[2] The different political, economic, and social frameworks make the technology favorable, while it was not the case in Europe.

The same can become real for enzymatic technology. First, we have to do an excellent job of proving our technology efficient and applicable. But it does not end here. We also need to convince society to take the financial risk to build up a new treatment process to make the best use of our precious water resources.

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