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Transformative New UMass Mobile Water Lab Unveiled for Commonwealth Officials at State House

Mobile Water Lab

Mobile Water Lab

David Reckhow at State House

David Reckhow at State House

On May 17, UMass Amherst’s brand new 36-foot-long, water-testing trailer was rolled out at the State House in Boston for lawmakers and officials to see, marvel at, and extol. The name of the revolutionary trailer lab is the “University of Massachusetts Amherst Mobile Water Innovation Laboratory,” which was funded with a $100,000 grant by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the New England Water Innovation Network. The trailer allows scientists to move around the state and conduct reliable water tests that can transform the way local communities treat their water.

See media coverage: MassLive, Gazette, WAMC, WesternMassNews

According to a MassLive article written by Shira Schoenberg, “The new mobile water-treatment lab run by UMass Amherst will help small towns test new water-treatment technology.” Schoenberg noted that the mobile lab, developed at UMass Amherst with state, federal, and corporate funding, will be able to travel around the state to treat and monitor water quality and will henceforth be operated by UMass with additional grant money.

Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor David Reckhow, one of the leaders of the project, told Schoenberg that the mobile lab will be a tool that smaller communities can use to test technologies and see if they are right for that community to invest in. It will also provide a way to accelerate the development of new technologies by moving them out of the lab and into practice in community water systems.

"We're still mired in the 100-year-old conventional treatment model that we've been using since the end of World War I," Reckhow said. "We want to update this."

An article written by M.J. Tidwell in the Daily Hampshire Gazette explained that “around 100 years ago, scientists created treatment standards for water to make it safe to use and drink. By and large, those standards are still in use today, as Reckhow told officials who came to tour the new mobile water testing lab…He added that there have been huge technological innovations in areas from communication to biotech, but water-treatment technology has stayed largely the same over the past hundred years.”

As Reckhow put it, “There’s no shortage of good ideas, only a lack of facilities to test them.”

Tidwell wrote that “The conventional treatment standards work and control waterborne contaminants, Reckhow said, but may not address longer-term issues like lead or chemical compounds. Furthermore, Reckhow said municipalities spend large portions of their budgets on water treatment and the energy required for current water-treatment methods.”

Testing new technology for water treatment can be tricky, Reckhow explained to Tidwell, “without exposing the entire water supply to an experiment gone wrong or building a facility just to test a single technology.” That’s where the new mobile water testing lab comes in.

Reckhow said the trailer can move around to small towns and implement new water-treatment technologies in its mobile lab, completely separate from the existing water supply.

Maggie Lohmiller and Erin Fitzsimonds at Western Mass News quoted Reckhow as saying that “There are a growing number of contaminants that are showing up in our water supply." He also said that those contaminants are continuing to evolve, which means that scientists need to get creative to combat the problem. "I personally started to get a little frustrated because I saw all this great laboratory research getting done, publications coming out of it, but not a lot of it was getting to be used," Reckhow added.

That's why experts from UMass built a mobile water-treatment lab in which they plan on bringing the science to those communities in need.

"We have the capability on wheels to take natural water that is not really suitable for drinking purposes and turn it into drinking water just like a full-scale water-treatment plant can," Reckhow explained to Lohmiller and Fitzsimonds. But more importantly, the mobile lab can test out new water-treatment technologies that would otherwise be impossible to test out on a larger scale. The focus is to produce higher quality water at a lower cost while using less energy.

MassLive’s Schoenberg wrote that “For its first project, the lab will go to Gloucester and Plainville to test an environmentally friendly chemical that can be added to water to disinfect it. If the testing works over several months, Reckhow said, he hopes to get it approved for use in municipal water systems. The mobile lab might also be helpful in emergency cases, such as when a water system goes down.”

"One of the things about drinking water systems is you want to be safety first," concluded Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass Amherst and former dean of the College of Engineering. "You want to be very careful about putting in new technologies, to make sure they work in the field, on the actual water that's being treated." (June 2018)