Dr Richard Collins
Dr Richard Collins has been an active and committed member of the water research team at Water Research Centre (WRC) for over twelve years. He prizes it as a place where expertise is shared to create good outcomes for a world with many problems. Formerly an Australia Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow, now a Scientia Fellow, Richard has a background in geology and soil chemistry. His overall ambition in life is to improve water and soil quality for Australian communities and presently his focus rests on the problems being faced by remote indigenous communities.
Water quality is a broad area of study and includes drinking water standards, how natural catchment and manmade farming systems work and how soil, water and vegetation interact. With a PhD in soil chemistry from Adelaide University and many years’ experience in all these areas, Richard Collins is ideally suited to conduct longitudinal research projects with long lasting ambitions.
Over twelve years ago, with Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage support and in partnership with Tweed Council, Richard began investigating problems of soil acidity in the floodplains of Northern NSW. Entitled Exploiting Natural Processes to Effectively Remediate Acidified Coastal Environments this ongoing project seeks to discover the where and the why of catchment system failure. What began as an investigation into the acid sulphate nature of soils has broadened into enquiries about the nitrogen cycle. It is unusual for sugar cane acid sulfate soils to lose so much nitrogen. Labs at UNSW are being used to discover “if certain reactions are thermodynamically favourable, so we can then use that knowledge to shape onsite investigations into soil processes that lead to nitrogen loss.”
This longitudinal study plays an important role in both defending the environment and helping agriculture industries to produce in a sustainable and profitable manner. Over the twelve years Richard has developed working relationships with the local people, with stakeholders and with the place itself. He is a researcher with the patient commitment needed for complex problems with complex solutions.
In 2012 Dr Collins won an ARC Future Fellowship to “investigate ways to remove naturally occurring uranium from groundwater with concentrations above drinking water guidelines in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.” From a young age he has been excited by restoring and protecting the environment and while he says his youthful enthusiasm has become more tempered with maturity, the social and environmental importance of this work cannot be underestimated.
This is important work, with expansive possibilities. Other remote communities have major problems with the hardness or the fluoride contents of their water supply.
Dr Richard Collins
Australian Drinking Water Guidelines are produced by the National Health and Medical Research Council. They are “designed to provide an authoritative reference on what defines safe, good quality drinking water.”[i] These guidelines are under constant revision, shaped by the latest scientific evidence and while their ethical intent is evident they are not mandatory.
It is estimated that there are 1200 small and remote communities across Australia and more than half of these rely on groundwater. Many are experiencing water supply problems which have been systematically unaddressed. Vast distances make external servicing solutions impossible and past technologies have often been unsuitable. There is a great need for regionally appropriate, cost efficient and user-friendly technologies that deal with the hardness and mineral content of bore water to make it a suitable and reliable household supply. Surely, this is the least any Australian citizen could expect.
Dr Richard Collins and the rest of his team: Dr Jinxing Ma and Scientia Professor David Waite, are extremely excited, hopeful and confident that a solar powered, portable, capacitance deionisation unit may help to solve some of these serious issues in remote communities.
Capacitance deoinisation, or CDI, has experienced a rapid growth in water research industries in the last 5 years. WRC have been investigating CDI for over 4 years now and this research puts it at the forefront of a burgeoning technological industry.
Electrosorption, or absorption at the surface of an electrode, is the underlying principle of CDI. It employs a low voltage direct current between two electrodes to convert, store or separate metals, salts or even designed molecules from a water supply. As only a low voltage is required CDI portable units, such as the one designed at WRC, can be run by solar power. Its small size, its portability, its user-friendly operation and its energy efficiency make this unit a potential technological blessing for remote communities.
The story of this project began in 2012 with Dr Collins’ ARC Future Fellowship. The Northern Territory Power and Water Corporation had released figures that revealed just how many remote water supplies had high and soluble uranium concentrations. Richard Collins undertook on site bore testing and with careful clinical processes gathered some viable and revealing samples. “often samples collected in remote areas can sit and wait for delivery to a lab. We challenged and upgraded this practice by using special bottles and gases to keep the original sample chemistry intact.”
“These samples revealed high carbonate concentrations and this solubilises uranium. While this may not cause acute toxicity, long term exposure has unknown chronic effects on human health as no research has been conducted.”
Most of the uranium found in the water across multiple sites was neutrally charged. “As a result, we were unsure if CDI could work to improve water quality in these communities. But, in fact, CDI processes worked particularly well in removing this kind of uranium selectively and preferentially.”
With this assurance, the WRC team has created a model groundwater that embodies the characteristics of water supplies from a wide number of sites and laboratory testing continues to show the efficacy of CDI. It is hoped that in partnership with the Global Water Institute pilot testing of the CDI units in these remote communities can begin in 2018.
Richard Collins personally hopes that the WRC can connect more fully with the communities it seeks to help. Some of these remote sites are hard to access because of bad roads. Some are fractured by social problems. But he seeks to fulfil the social contract of engagement that UNSW has articulated in recent years.
“This is important work, with expansive possibilities. Other remote communities have major problems with the hardness or the fluoride contents of their water supply. Certain West Australian communities are having to ship water in because of high nitrate levels. Infants especially could be affected by this unsuitable drinking water. But importing water is expensive and not sustainable.” CDI units could be the answer here too.
Waste streams from CDI processes are one of the issues that will have to be dealt with in the future. Already Richard’s WRC Colleague Dr. Ma is seeking to patent a process where CDI nutrient recovery is utilised as recycled fertiliser. The future questions are already being answered.
This CDI unit is the size of a small fridge but it could make a big difference. The solar powered units are particularly suited to our sunny Australian conditions. The potential widespread use in arid and unproductive areas will be facilitated as industrial partners become as excited and confident as the water researchers.