Optimizing Wastewater Treatment

Many types of human-made, organic micropollutants are removed poorly by existing wastewater treatment technologies. As a result, organic pollutants accumulate in aquatic environments, contaminating drinking water and raising concerns about ecosystem effects, the proliferation of antibiotic resistance, and long-term human health impacts. As water utilities more frequently consider wastewater reclamation and recycling for indirect or direct reuse, efficient and cost-effective means for micropollutant removal are becoming essential.

Damian E. Helbling, Civil and Environmental Engineering, is using this CAREER Award to study the mechanisms by which organic pollutants are transformed during wastewater treatment. His goal is to identify features of wastewater treatment plants, particularly within wastewater microbial communities, that enhance the transformation of organic pollutants. The results will enable prediction and optimization of wastewater treatment plant performance.

Helbling’s main focus is to better understand and exploit the broad metabolic capabilities of wastewater microbial communities. Building on his expertise in high-resolution mass spectrometry and using next-generation sequencing, he is inferring the metabolic functioning of microbial communities and characterizing the structure of the communities from population to functional levels. These techniques will help elucidate the dynamics of metabolic functioning and the molecular structure of full-scale wastewater microbial communities. With this new data, Helbling will look to identify taxa, ecological features, metabolic pathways, or operational parameters that lead to enhanced activity levels for specific types of micropollutant biotransformations. The research will therefore provide wastewater utilities with an effective means for optimizing bioprocesses to meet emerging and urgent objectives, such as minimizing the influence of wastewater micropollutants on water resources.

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$500 Thousand spanning 5 years