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Science News Publishes Major Feature Highlighting David Reckhow, His Lab, and the Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory

Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory

Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory

A feature story in Science News looks at the water testing laboratory at UMass Amherst run by David A. Reckhow, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and his staff. The Reckhow facility offers room for researchers and communities to test out new methods of water treatment. The story also notes that Reckhow and his team have a new Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory that can be used to visit communities and do testing on site.

The article, written by Laurel Hamers, notes that “Off a gravel road at the edge of a college campus — next door to the town’s holding pen for stray dogs — is a busy test site for the newest technologies in drinking water treatment. In the large shed-turned-laboratory, University of Massachusetts Amherst engineer David Reckhow has started a movement. More people want to use his lab to test new water treatment technologies than the building has space for.”

Hamers explains that the lab is a revitalization success story. In the 1970s, when the Clean Water Act put new restrictions on water pollution, the diminutive grey building in Amherst, was a place to test those pollution-control measures.

“But funding was fickle, and over the years, the building fell into disrepair,” notes Hamers. “In 2015, Reckhow brought the site back to life. He and a team of researchers cleaned out the junk, whacked the weeds that engulfed the building, and installed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of monitoring equipment, much of it donated or bought secondhand.”

“We recognized that there's a lot of need for drinking water technology,” Reckhow says. “Researchers, students, and start-up companies all want access to test ways to disinfect drinking water, filter out contaminants, or detect water-quality slipups.”

On a Monday afternoon in October, the lab is busy,” reports Hamers. “Students crunch data around a big table in the main room. Small-scale tests of technology that uses electrochemistry to clean water chug along, hooked up to monitors that track water quality. On a lab bench sits a graduate student’s low-cost replica of an expensive piece of monitoring equipment. The device alerts water treatment plants when the by-products of disinfection chemicals in a water supply are reaching dangerous levels. In an attached garage, two startup companies are running larger-scale tests of new kinds of membranes that filter out contaminants.”

The facility’s popularity reflects a persistent concern in the United States: how to ensure affordable access to clean, safe drinking water. Although U.S. drinking water is heavily regulated and pretty clean overall, recent high-profile contamination cases, such as the 2014 lead crisis in Flint, Mich., have exposed weaknesses in the system and shaken people’s trust in their tap water.

Hamers observes that, parked behind the shed, is the “almost-ready-to-roll newcomer.” Starting in 2019, the Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory will take promising new and affordable technologies to local communities for testing. That’s important, says Reckhow, because there’s so much variety in the quality of water that comes into drinking water treatment plants. On-site testing is the only way to know whether a new approach is effective, he says, especially for newer technologies without long-term track records.

In the 36-foot trailer is a squeaky-clean array of plastic pipes and holding tanks. The setup routes incoming water through the same series of steps — purifying, filtering, and disinfecting — that one would find in a standard drinking water treatment plant. With two sets of everything, scientists can run side-by-side experiments, comparing a new technology’s performance against the standard approach. (December 2018)