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By revolutionizing microbiological-based technologies in water and wastewater treatment, Professors Mark van Loosdrecht and Bruce Rittmann have demonstrated the possibilities to remove harmful contaminants from water, cut wastewater treatment costs, reduce energy consumption, and even recover chemicals and nutrients for recycling.
Their pioneering research and innovations have led to a new generation of energy-efficient water treatment processes that can effectively extract nutrients and other chemicals — both valuable and harmful — from wastewater.
It has also led to the pair being named this year's laureates of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize, which is given annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) to promote excellent water achievements and inspire future water-wise action.
Van Loosdrecht is a professor in environmental biotechnology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Bruce Rittmann is Regents’ Professor of environmental engineering and director of the Biodesign Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
On receiving news of the prize, van Loosdrecht said: “I’m very excited and pleased! This is a recognition not just of our work but of the contributions microbiological engineering can make to the water sector."
The Stockholm Water Prize is an annual global award founded in 1991. It is appointed by SIWI and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and awarded by SIWI, to an individual, organization or institution for outstanding water-related achievements. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden is patron of the prize.
In its citation, the Stockholm Water Prize nominating committee recognized Rittmann and van Loosdrecht for “pioneering and leading the development of environmental biotechnology-based processes for water and wastewater treatment. They have revolutionized treatment of water for safe drinking, and refined purification of polluted water for release or reuse — all while minimizing the energy footprint."
The professors’ research has led to new processes for wastewater treatment currently being used around the globe.
“Traditionally, we have just thought of pollutants as something to get rid of, but now we’re beginning to see them as potential resources that are just in the wrong place,” Rittmann said.
In his research he has studied how microorganisms can transform organic pollutants to something of value to humans and the environment.
“We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift, with more and more focus on how we can create resources, using microbial systems,” he said.
Van Loosdrecht’s work echoes this sentiment. His research has led to increasingly common wastewater treatment processes that are less costly and more energy-efficient than traditional methods.
“With current technology, you can already be energy neutral, and there is a lot of research on how to become energy positive. Especially in developing countries with unstable electricity supply and limited access to funding, this is very important. If we could build a wastewater plant that is self-sufficient in energy, that would make sewage plants feasible in many more places,” van Loosdrecht said.
“Together, Professors Rittmann and van Loosdrecht are leading, illuminating and demonstrating the path forward in one of the most challenging human enterprises on this planet — that of providing clean and safe water for humans, industry, and ecosystems,” said Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute.
Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden will present the prize to Rittmann and van Loosdrecht on behalf of H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, at a royal award ceremony on Aug. 29, during World Water Week in Stockholm.
Rittmann has written over 650 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Together with Perry McCarty (the 2007 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate), he is also the author of the textbook "Environmental Biotechnology: Principles and Applications."
Rittmann has chaired the program committee of the Leading Edge Technology Conference of the International Water Association, where he has worked together with van Loosdrecht. The membrane biofilm reactor (MBfR), a technology that Rittmann invented, uses naturally occurring microorganisms to remove contaminants such as perchlorate and tricloroethene from water, and has been commercialized.
Rittmann has received many accolades during his career. These include being named a fellow of the International Water Association, National Academy of Inventors, and American Association for the Advancement of Science; and he is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Van Loosdrecht’s research has led to the quite widely used Anammox and Nereda technologies for wastewater treatment. The Anammox process is a resource-efficient way to remove nitrogen from wastewater. In industries it is used after anaerobic wastewater treatment, while in municipal wastewater treatment it is used in combination with sludge digestion. In both cases this results in an energy-producing treatment process.
The Nereda technology is based on granulation of bacteria, which allows a simpler and cheaper municipal wastewater treatment process. A Nereda plant can be built on a smaller patch of land (more than 60 percent less area need) and uses up to 50 percent less energy than conventional methods. Recovery of high-performance biopolymers from the "waste" sludge will contribute to a future with a more circular economy.
Van Loosdrecht has been awarded several prizes, including the 2014 Spinoza Prize and the 2012 Lee Kuan Yew Prize. He is chief editor of the scientific journal Water Research and a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Dutch and U.S. National Academies of Sciences.
Stockholm International Water Institute leverages knowledge and convening power to strengthen water governance for a just, prosperous and sustainable future. SIWI focuses on a range of research and development topics within and around water that support decision-makers worldwide. World Water Week is the world’s leading annual water event, the Stockholm Water Prize the most prestigious water award, and the Stockholm Junior Water Prize fosters future generations of water excellence.
The best way to tackle water crises and help bring about lasting change, according to SIWI, is to strengthen water governance among public and private actors alike. Essentially, SIWI fosters finding solutions to who gets what water, when and how, and who has the right to water and related services, and the associated benefits.
SIWI’s strong international team of knowledge-generators, convenors, facilitators and trainers works to strengthen the systems and processes that govern access to and protection of fresh water, with the overarching aim to contribute to poverty eradication.
Initially founded by the Stockholm Water Foundation to encourage research and development of the world’s water environment, the Stockholm Water Prize is supported by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, International Water Association, Water Environment Federation and the City of Stockholm. The founders of the Stockholm Water Prize are companies united in their strong conviction to drive sustainability in the water sector. They are Bacardi, Europeiska ERV, Poul Due Jensen Foundation, Ragn-Sells, Water Environment Federation, Xylem and Ålandsbanken.