Indigenous science invention will create cleaner waterways
11 March 2020
A desire to preserve waterways as taonga for future generations has motivated a University of Canterbury (UC) student to develop an innovative, low cost and effective device to remove pollution from our streams, lakes and rivers.
Ngārie Scartozzi, who is studying towards a PhD and is a tutor at UC, has been developing her eClean bioreactor unit for the past 15 years and has just been awarded a grant of $150,000 from technology incubator Astrolab to build a prototype. She will have just 12 weeks to build it using a laboratory space at Ara Institute of Canterbury.
It’s a technology solution with the ability to transform the health of New Zealand waterways, she says.
“As Māori we’re kaitiaki (guardians) of our natural resources. I try to keep that in mind when I’m researching. That’s my underlying ethos and driver. I want to use my skill set to help improve water quality and preserve our taonga [precious] waterways so they can be used for future generations.
Scartozzi, who has a background in commercial aquaculture, already has a board of directors and she plans to carry out her first field trial of an eClean unit in the next few months, installing it at a test site at the head of the Ōtakaro/Avon River.
She is collaborating with Drinkable Rivers NZ on the test. The organisation has provided a data sensor at the site in Avonhead which carries out continuous monitoring of water quality. The river has a high level of contamination and Scartozzi hopes by removing nitrate, levels of E. coli, the bacteria that feeds on nitrogen, will fall.
Depending on funding from Astrolab, she is hoping to field test another two units in partnership with Ravensdown. One will be at a dairy farm and the other will be in an agricultural or horticulture setting.
If the trials go well then she plans to begin manufacturing the units early next year for use in the mining, industrial, aquaculture and agricultural sectors.
The bioreactor removes nitrates, phosphates and other contaminants such as E. coli bacteria from water in farm drains, rivers, streams and lakes, but is not suitable for high-flow environments.
“It’s an engineered system,” she says. “When the water comes into the unit the microbiome breaks apart the nitrates, phosphates and E. coli, uses these contaminants as a food source and then releases a harmless nitrogen gas.
“The key to the technology is that it can be mass-manufactured and duplicated, there are no specialised or moving parts. It’s affordable and accessible and it’s compact. It only uses a small amount of energy when it pumps the water up, then it uses gravity.”
The unit could be solar powered and sensors record exactly how much nitrogen and other contaminants have been removed from the water.
“That’s really helpful for the dairy farming sector so farmers can quantify how much they have reduced their nitrogen levels, helping them meet their obligations under ECan’s [Environment Canterbury’s] nitrogen leaching regulations.”
The idea for a bioreactor that filters water came from her experience working on hatcheries and fish farms in Australia. “I discovered that the filters we were using were really effective in removing nitrates.”
Her venture was named Overall Winner in the University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship (UCE) Summer Startup showcase held at The Piano earlier this year.
Scartozzi has a BA (Hons) in indigenous science and is studying towards a PhD focused on using bioreactor technology on water bodies affected by pollution, particularly those connected to local Māori.
Her specialty area is integrating mātaurānga Maori, traditional and contemporary Māori knowledge, with scientific research.
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